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NYSUT's higher education members descended on Albany Tuesday for their annual lobbying day, with a message to lawmakers: Saying "Sorry" isn't good enough in a year when public colleges and universities face potentially crippling cuts in Gov. David Paterson's budget proposal.
Unionists from the State University of New York, the City University of New York, and the state's community colleges went into their meetings with legislators well prepared for the usual rebuttals, and they heard them all: It's not a good year to increase revenue; a potential $10 billion state deficit is an emergency; and public education is not the only institution in New York facing cuts.
And NYSUT members were ready with their answers. For every statement they heard from lawmakers about why cuts can't be reversed, members were ready with a list of strong arguments about not only why they should be reversed, but also how they can be.
Among NYSUT's suggestions for state action, listed in a bulletin distributed throughout the Legislative Office Building Tuesday:
* Close the loopholes that allow corporations to avoid their fair share of state taxes;
* Reduce the amount of state work contracted out to consultants;
* Impose a tax on sugary beverages and plastic bags - steps NYSUT believes could curb obesity rates and help the environment - and collect taxes owed on cigarettes sold to non-Native Americans;
* Lower prescription drug prices for state and local governments and New York consumers by negotiating fair deals with drug companies.
Nearly 300 NYSUT members from as far away as Buffalo, Long Island and the North Country fanned out in the halls of the Legislative Office Building. Some of them were familiar faces to lawmakers, and several of them were participating for the first time. Among the first-time participants was Tim McHeffey, a member of the Faculty Association of Suffolk Community College who teaches business at the college's East Campus.
"It's a terrific experience," McHeffey said of his first Lobbying Day. "I feel very well prepared, and able to help the cause."
The situation is critical: If the $152.4 million cut proposed for SUNY's senior colleges goes through, it would bring total budget cuts to $562.4 million in the last two years. Cuts to CUNY senior colleges would total $84.4 million in the 2010-11 budget, bringing the total cuts in the last two years to $294.4 million. Cuts to both SUNY and CUNY community colleges would total $75 million under the budget proposal.
Members gathered Monday night for a send-off by NYSUT officers and higher education leaders, including President Dick Iannuzzi and Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta. Also speaking were Phil Smith, president of United University Professions, which represents more than 36,000 academic and professional faculty at SUNY; Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress, which represents 20,000 faculty and staff at CUNY; and Ellen Schuler Mauk, president of the Faculty Association of Suffolk Community College and who, along with Andy Sako, president of Erie Community College Faculty Association, represents community colleges on the NYSUT board.
Iannuzzi prepared members for resistance to the idea that money can be restored to higher education.
"You will go in and you will hear, 'I understand, but there's nothing we can do,'" Iannuzzi said. "The answer is, they need to wake up. The answer is progressive income tax. NYSUT is 600,000 members strong. And at the end of the day, it will stand by its own. Your work is cut out for you. I ask you only to remember that all of us are with you."
Tuesday marked the fourth time in six weeks that NYSUT higher education leaders or members have been to the capital to press for restoration of higher education funding. Other events have included a rally that drew nearly 300 UUP members, SUNY students and other unionists; testimony by NYSUT leaders on the proposed budget cuts; and an earlier lobbying day. NYSUT's higher education members expect to be back in Albany March 9 for a rally, and March 15 for the Committee of 100 lobbying day.