It’s My Turn

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Billy Easton is executive director of
the Alliance for Quality Education.
This first appeared in the Albany
Times Union.

A few years ago, New York’s legislative process was described as the most dysfunctional in the country. Since then we have had a governor resign in disgrace, a state Senate leader sentenced to jail for corruption and another senator expelled for domestic violence. An abortive coup last year crippled the Senate and was the subject of national ridicule.

This year has brought the return of the late budget that used to be a chronic problem. Gov. David Paterson has proposed permanent cuts to health care, mental health and social services through short-term budget extenders and has held the threat of government shutdown over legislators who vote no.

Paterson has suggested he would propose another budget extender including the $1.4 billion he wants to take from our school children even though nearly 75 percent of New Yorkers, according to a recent New York State United Teachers poll, and the majority of the State Legislature oppose these cuts.

If lawmakers accept cuts which they actually oppose in order to avoid a shutdown, the consequences to our school children will be devastating. The consequence for our democracy will be even worse.

Backed by a court decision, New York governors already enjoy disproportionate power in the budget process. Individual legislators have complained to me that if they adopt the governor’s dramatic cuts to schools as part of a temporary budget extender, it will set a damaging precedent under which governors could negotiate a budget stalemate and then use the threat of shutdown to get their way.

Worse is that some have suggested the governor use this dysfunctional method to force changes in law. For instance, Paterson may use a budget extender to eliminate Rochester voters’ right to elect a school board and instead replace it with mayoral control. Surely such a big policy decision deserves a full public debate on its own merits.

The likely next governor, Andrew Cuomo, has called for an extender including a school property tax cap. Unless Rick Lazio and the Republican Party pull off a miracle in November, Cuomo will have the power to propose his cap and force a full and open public debate next year. Surely such a debate is warranted about a policy that many believe would dramatically hurt the quality of education. Major changes in the law should not be rammed through via an emergency budget—talk about dysfunction.

Late budgets are not desirable. They make it harder for schools, local governments and communitybased service providers to make important decisions on staff layoffs and local taxes. But a bad budget has much longer-term consequences than a late budget.

The Legislature is negotiating, even if we have yet to see the results. One major sticking point is restoring funding for public education — which the Assembly leadership has championed throughout this process and with which the Senate majority appears to be on board. Getting this budget right and restoring funding for our schools is critically important as it means the difference between educational programs for our kids being saved or eliminated.

But the most dysfunctional of legislative maneuvers — the temporary budget extender to avoid a government shutdown — should not be used to force a shotgun wedding between getting this budget done and making major changes in law without a public debate.

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