April 22, 2009

Despite fiscal crisis, some funding battles won

Author: Clarisse Butler Banks
Source: New York Teacher

As delegates to the Representative Assembly were in Buffalo directing NYSUT policy, one resolution was already being successfully handled: Lawmakers in Albany got rid of language excluding needy part-time members from the state's Family Health Plus program.

"This is a big win for our members who can't afford the insurance offered by their employers," said NYSUT Executive Vice President Alan Lubin. The law's original language had excluded public employees from participating in the health insurance program.

Lawmakers, facing a steadily growing deficit and the worst fiscal crisis in a generation, agreed on a $131.8 billion state budget earlier this month. And had it not been for federal stimulus funds, public education in New York would have been decimated. That message was echoed throughout NYSUT's recent convention by the statewide union's officers and retiring State Education Commissioner Richard Mills.

"We are facing difficult times," said NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi. "Due to the leadership of Sen. Chuck Schumer and House Chairman Charlie Rangel in securing much-needed federal stimulus funding, we're looking at a slight increase in school aid versus unimaginable cuts."

While aid to education remains essentially flat, the agreement included many hard-won restorations, thanks to NYSUT members' advocacy and an unprecedented lobbying effort, Iannuzzi said.

More than $260 million in proposed cuts was restored to SUNY, CUNY and the community colleges; the budget also included $20.7 million in supplemental grants to selected school districts.

Federal stimulus funds secured full funding for the state's network of teacher centers and partial restoration to the state Mentor Teacher Intern Program.

Stimulus dollars also will cover the $132 million price tag on the proposed pre-school special education cost shift.

Lubin thanked union members for their tremendous outreach and grassroots lobbying efforts.

"Our members sent thousands of faxes, made countless phone calls and reached out to lawmakers in their districts and in Albany," Lubin said. "With the state facing a $17 billion deficit, these restorations would not have been possible without the hard work of our members."

Revenue booster

NYSUT has long advocated for reforming the state's personal income tax system as one way to build longterm fiscal stability.

The message was partially heard in Albany as lawmakers included a three-year temporary income tax increase on high earners. The move is expected to raise $4 billion in 2009-10.

Under the plan, the income tax rate for married taxpayers filing jointly with incomes above $300,000 would increase to 7.85 percent; for those earning $500,000 the rate would go up to 8.97 percent.

In another cost-saving move for the state, lawmakers eliminated the middle-class STAR property tax rebate check program. The basic and enhanced (for seniors over age 65) STAR programs will remain in effect. The elimination means homeowners will no longer receive a rebate check.