I have quickly discovered that, in Albany, this time of year is not as much about festive holiday lights and turning the page on a new calendar, as it is about budget numbers and jockeying for position.
That's right: Even before the holiday tree at the Capitol is decorated, serious conversations have begun about the 2015-16 state budget and the legislative priorities that will be taken up when the Senate and Assembly return in a few weeks.
Forget New Year's Eve; the new legislative session is just around the corner.
For NYSUT and those of us who work in public education, human services and health care, the ground already being laid in the halls of the Capitol is vital to our success when budget talks begin in earnest and our professional staff and volunteer activists begin their advocacy on behalf of the professions we practice and the New Yorkers we represent.
And we have a great case to make when we talk to lawmakers.
In the six years since Wall Street's collapse triggered the Great Recession, New York's public schools and colleges have endured deep budget cuts that starved school districts of the support they need to adequately serve the nearly 3 million students who deserve a great education. The state budget ax — which swung without sympathy for geography or need — forced districts to chop programs and cut about 35,000 education jobs since 2008.
While state funding in the last two years has been somewhat better — although not overly generous — the fact remains more than half of the state's school districts are operating today with less state funding than this time in 2008. The ill-conceived and undemocratic property tax cap exacerbates the problem.
But, perhaps, better days are ahead.
New York state now has an estimated $5 billion budget surplus. Yes, that's "billion" with a "B." An improving economy and settlements of several lawsuits involving major banks has infused the state treasury with new money.
While many have ideas on how the surplus should be spent, the Educational Conference Board — a coalition of major statewide education groups, including NYSUT — recently released a report on how the state could use some of that surplus to help public education begin to make up years of cuts and forced belt-tightening.
ECB has proposed — and NYSUT agrees — that the governor and Legislature approve a state education budget that reflects modestly higher costs — about 3 percent — and pays schools about $300 million in prior year claims. In addition, we want the state to accelerate the elimination of the Gap Elimination Adjustment, which has drained money from districts to help close the state's budget deficit — a deficit that no longer exists.
And we want new state money to expand pre-kindergarten programs, a smart investment if we are serious about ending the achievement gap.
It adds up to a $1.9 billion state funding increase for public education. It's money that will help school districts begin to turn the corner and provide the programs and services New York's students need.
Working closely with parents and other like-minded groups, NYSUT will be a strong voice for increased school aid when the Legislature returns to Albany. And I know I can depend on many of you to help us succeed; to lobby your legislators, at the Capitol and in your community.
It is important that the voice of every NYSUT member be heard, on budget and legislative issues as well as in the running of our great union. That's why the officers continue to ask the question: What do you want from your union? Give us an answer at www.nysut.org; help us chart the best, most responsive course for NYSUT.
Another way to have a say is to take part in our annual Representative Assembly. Our large locals are always well represented at the convention but we want to make sure every member's voice is heard. To that end, we encourage small locals to join in "Council of Locals" so everyone has a chance to participate in our representative democracy.
Whether it is at the Capitol or in our union halls, together, we are a voice that can't be ignored.
HELP THOSE IN NEED
Many of our western New York brothers and sisters are still dealing with the devastating aftermath of a record-breaking November snow storm. And with winter just days away, we are all keeping an eye on the weather, fully aware that Mother Nature can wreak havoc on our lives.
NYSUT is prepared to help members who might need it through our Disaster Relief Fund. During this holiday season, please consider making a contribution to the fund so our union can be responsive and help our colleagues in need. Go to www.nysut.org/resources/special-resources-sites/disaster-relief/make-a-donation.