January/February 2021 Issue
December 19, 2020

Union’s legislative priorities focus on COVID–19 issues

Author: Ned Hoskin
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There’s no debate over this fact: At the current rate, in the midst of a pandemic, New York State faces a fiscal deficit of some $60 billion over the next four to five years.

And there should be no debate over this fact, as well: The two-pronged solution is to enact federal COVID-19 stimulus funding and to raise revenue at home by taxing the state’s wealthiest residents.

“We can hope the changes in Washington, D.C., will loosen the purse strings for much needed pandemic relief,” said NYSUT President Andy Pallotta. “But we need the commonsense revenue enhancers at home to survive this medical, educational and economic disaster.”

Enacted as the coronavirus shoved the economy into a tailspin, last year’s state budget reduced state support for schools for 2020–21 by $1.1 billion through what was called the Pandemic Adjustment. Some of that was covered by the federal CARES Act, but it did not fully restore lost state aid to public schools.

As a result of the fiscal situation, the New York State Division of Budget has been withholding support for higher education on SUNY and CUNY campuses as well as community colleges, causing massive layoffs, lost programs and ballooning class sizes. They also zeroed-out funding for educational programs such as Universal Pre-K and teacher centers, essentially shutting them down. Now, a further 20 percent reduction in state aid looms as a step toward closing the state budget gap. Such cuts taken in lieu of revenue solutions are unfair and ill-advised, NYSUT maintains.

“This is simple,” Pallotta said. “Devastating cuts to state aid will lead to a reprehensible loss of opportunities for students. It’s time to refocus on federal stimulus funding and state revenues that can help cover the budget gap and stop deep cuts to public schools. The alternative simply isn’t acceptable for students, educators and families.”

Session in isolation

The legislative session will be even more unusual than last year’s, which shifted to remote business and essentially kept the books open for months. This year, the Legislature will meet online to comply with social distancing requirements.

Of course, that also means the face-to-face rituals of lobbying at the Capitol will be impossible. NYSUT activists in the Committee of 100, and the legislative staff, will still be working the phones, the emails and the Zoom meetings.

Obviously, COVID–19 recovery is the No. 1 priority. Students in all public schools —including low-wealth rural and urban areas — must have the equipment, the internet access and the resources needed to support their education.

NYSUT activists will also be looking to restore funding cuts that were made last year. In higher education and pre-K–12, these programs must be made whole.

Community schools, which serve entire communities with wrap-around health and social services to improve education, took a hit last year. They require committed funding to build a better system, with a school nurse in every building, and to ensure supports are available to help with the mental health needs of students and teachers.

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