Sunday, April 11, 2010

State Senate, Trying to Trim Deficit, Offers Budget Plan Cutting $1.4 Billion From Schools

March 22, 2010

ALBANY — School financing, a perennial third rail of state politics, would be cut by $1.4 billion under a plan put forward on Monday by Senate Democrats trying to plug a budget deficit estimated at $9 billion.

The resolution the Senate passed constituted a grab bag from the $134 billion budget Gov. David A. Paterson introduced in January. It cut in many of the same areas the governor had, but also restored many of the reductions he had called for and rejected his most prominent revenue proposals.

The plan, which also counts on $700 million from the refinancing of tobacco bonds, was the Legislature’s first step toward laying out its own budget; it has a deadline of March 31. The Assembly is expected to adopt its own spending plan later this week.

Though the budget that ends up on Mr. Paterson’s desk could look quite different, Mr. Paterson praised the broad outlines of the Senate Democrats’ plan, which was adopted on a straight party-line vote.

“We are pleased to see that the Senate, for the most part, accepts the deficit reductions that we have made,” Mr. Paterson said Monday during an appearance at City Hall.

Senate Democrats, however, did not include the governor’s plans to tax sugary drinks, to raise the cigarette tax by $1, to $3.75, or to allow grocery stores to sell wine.

Their plan would leave spending for state parks at levels high enough that none would have to be closed and it would avoid deep cuts to the State University of New York and City University of New York systems.

But the plan essentially accepts the governor’s proposed education cuts, though it would distribute them differently — a move that was greeted with surprise in the halls of the Capitol, where teachers’ unions and public school lobbyists have long wielded great influence.

“It underscores the severity of the state’s budget problems that they are willing to accept a school aid cut,” said Edmund J. McMahon, director of the Empire Center for New York State Policy, a conservative-leaning research group. “Even they know you need to do this. And that’s a pretty significant thing.”

Democrats said they understood the significance of calling for such deep cuts to public schools, characterizing them as painful but unavoidable.

Asked why education, along with health care, was being singled out for cuts, Senator Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat, replied, “Because that’s where the money is.”

Whether those cuts would be included in the final budget passed by the Legislature was not clear. Senator John L. Sampson, leader of the Senate Democratic conference, said the budget resolution was merely a first step meant to jump-start the negotiation process.

“There will be a dialogue,” Mr. Sampson said. “This is just a resolution. This is a road map to where we want to go.”

Just last week, a group of 15 senators wrote to Mr. Paterson, telling him they would not support a budget that included spending reductions for schools.

In their plan, Senate Democrats also proposed cutting health care spending by about $641 million. That is less than the $1 billion reduction Mr. Paterson called for, but still amounts to an overall reduction of 1.3 percent to the Health Department’s budget. The department’s total budget would be $55.9 billion.

Advocates for public school teachers and administrators reacted with outrage to the Democrats’ plan.

The New York State School Boards Association estimated that it could cost 14,000 teachers their jobs.

Ernest Logan, president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, called the plan “unconscionable.”

Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, said it would result in deteriorating conditions at New York City schools, just as the financial crisis of the 1970s had. “The Senate’s proposal is a disaster in the making for the children in New York’s public schools,” Mr. Mulgrew said.

Others had different reasons for disliking the plan. Some found the Democrats’ budget had a too-good-to-be-true ring to it. “How did we balance this budget by restoring all these wonderful things?” asked Senator John A. DeFrancisco, a Republican from the Syracuse area. “Well, simple answer: It’s not balanced.”

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