Upcoming Albany Legislative Session: School Aid Funding and an Albany Politics Primer

In the next few blogs I’ll be addressing the education issues that will dominate Albany, in the current blog a teaching moment about the “politics” of the legislative process and education funding.

Gideon J. Tucker, a Surrogate Court Judge in the New York State courts, in a decision, wrote, “No man’s life, liberty, or property are safe while the legislature is in session.”

For decades the New York State legislature was a part time job for most legislators, the Assembly and the Senate met a few days a week from January till June with full weeks during “budget week,” the last week in March, and, the last week of the session in June. (See the 2019 session calendar here   and public hearing calendar here). Legislators may have a law practice, real estate, run a business, and others full time. All legislators have an office in their district.  In 1998 the $57.000 salary was increased to $79,500, plus additional salary for some committee chairmanships (“lulu”) and per diem stipend for each day in Albany. Over the last twenty years the job has become a full time position for most legislators, and, no raises. After years of “quiet” discussions a committee made up of the NYS and NYC Comptrollers decided upon phased in raises to increase salary to $130,000, limited outside income, eliminated additional stipends and requires an on time budget; there will probably be legal challenges.

The legislators return on Wednesday to listen to the Governor’s State of the State message, speeches by the Assembly and Senate leaders and a number of receptions.

The 150 Assembly members and the 63 Senators, for the first time in memory are firmly in the democratic column.

In the Congress bills are passed in both houses, reconciled and passed along to the president for signature, in Albany, the governor is an integral part of the process. The reason is a quirk in law; New York State budgets must be passed by April 1, the beginning of the fiscal year, and, the budget can contain anything, policies that have absolutely nothing to do with the budget. The highest court in the state confirmed this practice.

While leaders in both houses have clear agendas the governor also has an agenda  ,

Democratic control of the state Senate this year is expected to lead to the passage of long-sought liberal goals, including campaign finance reforms and changes to voter registration laws that range from early registration to making it easier to change your party affiliation.

But in recent days, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has seemed skeptical that the one-house bills that have glided through the Assembly will pass with the same ease in the new legislative session.

“Pass the Roe v. Wade that you said you would pass,” Cuomo said on WCNY’s The Capitol Pressroom. “Pass public finance like you said you would pass. Pass campaign finance. Pass the Contraceptive Care Act. I will sign it in a heartbeat. They have to now do what they said they would do when they passed those bills. Send me the public finance bill.”

If the legislature does not pass the bills he favors he could simply roll the bills into the budget talks and the legislators will be forced to either submit to Cuomo, or, go past the budget deadline and jeopardize their raise; although a late budget would also damage the governor who clearly has eyes on higher office.

Yes, Judge Tucker’s warning about the legislature still resonates today.

In February the governor will release his Executive Budget, it will be 2% higher than the current budget as per his self-imposed constraints. Each house will pass a “one-house” budget and in the waning days of March, if the script follows previous years, a budget will be voted on throughout the night of March 31st into the dawn hours of April 1st; unless, the newly elected democrats in the Senate decide to do battle with the governor.

Notice: there has been virtually no discussion of state education aid; a topic that usually dominate pre-budget talks.

Education advocates and the newly elected senators from New York City led by Robert Jackson, one of the original Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) litigants and a newly elected senator will be leading the fight. Jackson and the advocates aver the state “owes” New York City billions of CFE dollars that were halted by the 2008 Great Recession. Cuomo disagrees, and, appeals to other low wealth, high poverty districts,

Gov. Andrew Cuomo insisted in a radio interview Thursday he backs more funding for poorer school districts in New York as he also seeks to turn aside a push from education advocates to add $4 billion in direct education aid this year …  the perennial push from education advocates to settle what they say are the terms of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit.

Cuomo in the interview Thursday insisted it was a settled matter.

“That is not an opinion. That is a fact. The CFE lawsuit was settled,” Cuomo said, while adding education advocates who have antagonized him over the issue are “wrong.”

“There are people who say the world is flat, OK?” he said.

But at the same time, Cuomo indicated he’s willing to provide additional funding to low-income and needy districts. It’s a potential olive branch extended as one of the original plaintiffs in the CFE case, Robert Jackson, will be a freshman Democratic state senator this year.

“We don’t give poor schools enough funding. That is true,” Cuomo said. “My point is the poorer schools need more funding because they have a greater challenge. Let’s give the poorer schools more.”

Still, there may not  sufficient money to stretch school aid. Cuomo once again has signaled he wants to keep overall spending in the budget capped at a 2 percent ceiling.

A quick review of education funding: 2/3 of education dollars come from local property taxes, the increases have been capped at 2% by provisions in each budget since Cuomo was elected. School budgets are on the ballot in May school board elections, except, in New York City, education dollars are part of the city budget. Per capita funding varies widely, high wealth suburban districts to low wealth urban (Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse) and rural districts. New York City is at the midpoint of the spectrum.

State aid provides about 1/3 of the state education dollars and most of the state dollars, called foundation aid, are distributed by formula attempting to some extent equalize the funding gap.

The Board of Regents spends the Fall constructing a budget proposal for the legislature/governor, the budget priorities below, click here to read the details.

2019-2020 Proposal ($2.1 billion):

• Foundation Aid Phase-in ($1.66 billion)

• ELL Support within Foundation Aid ($85 million)

• Expense-based Aids ($410 million)

• Universal Prekindergarten ($26 million)

• Career and Technical Education ($25 million)

While New York State provides the highest per capita funding in the nation  it also is among the most inequitable distributions by district in the nation. Other states provide all funding from the state, no wealth-based education funding, and the state legislature has shown no interest in disrupting the current system.

The dilemma: how can the state provide more dollars for the poorest districts and also provide additional dollars for the suburban districts; Robin Hood versus more dollars for all, and, keeping within the “rules” set by the governor?

And remember: the governor’s goal of fulfilling the Cuomo family dream that his father failed to pursue.

Next topics:

Mayoral Control

Charter Schools

Specialized High Schools Admittance Procedures

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