Clarion Masthead

State Budget Deal Falls Short for City University

In the final agreement on New York State’s budget, Albany kept statewide spending growth below 2% for the fifth year in a row – and the resulting spending plan falls short for CUNY.

As New York’s economy grows, tax revenues are rising. But forced austerity still defined Albany’s spending plan.

Steven Spinola, head of the Real Estate Board of New York, hailed the restraint on public spending as “very good news.” While money was tight for public services, the new budget includes special tax breaks for New Yorkers who buy yachts and private planes.

Albany’s budget failed to include the PSC’s two priorities in this year’s negotiations: a true “maintenance of effort” in State funding to cover mandatory cost increases, and dedicated funding for retroactive pay in a future contract settlement. At stake was $63 million for the mandatory cost increases, and $240 million for retro pay.

PSC budget organizing did increase the number of legislators who firmly backed the union’s goals, and while the union didn’t get over the top by the April 1 deadline, PSC leaders resolved to “continue to advocate with elected officials for their support through the end of the legislative session in June.” Albany could approve a separate pay bill to fund a new collective bargaining agreement, as has been done with past CUNY contracts, and PSC officers said members should be ready to take action on short notice.

Some Gains

Union action on the budget helped win some improvements for CUNY in the March 29 agreement between the governor, the State Senate and the Assembly.

  • An increase of $100 per full-time-equivalent student in the rate for State Base Aid to community colleges, for a total increase of $6.1 million to CUNY.
  • An additional $12 million for CUNY senior colleges. These funds are tied to creation of a performance plan, but an earlier proposal to base 10% of future funding on results of that plan was not adopted.
  • Opportunity programs at CUNY, SEEK and College Discovery, received increases totaling $4.1 million.
  • CUNY’s much-praised ASAP initiative (Accelerated Study in Associate Programs) saw its current funding of $1.7 million restored and an additional $0.8 million appropriated.
  • The Joseph Murphy Institute for Labor Studies had its funding restored ($0.5 million).
  • Funding for campus childcare was increased ($0.4 million).

The expanded legislative support for the PSC’s two key priorities, on which the union hopes to build, can be seen in two letters issued in March. The first letter initiated by Assembly Higher Education Committee Chair Deborah Glick, and signed by 64 assemblymembers, urged that this year’s budget “adequately fund…maintenance of effort (MOE) as promised,” a commitment that ought to “include all collective bargaining costs or inflationary costs for mandated items like energy.”

In another letter, Glick and 43 co-signers advocated dedicated funding for “retroactive pay for the CUNY faculty and professional staff,” a one-time expenditure that the assemblymembers said was important for CUNY students. “Five years without a raise…hurts the quality of education that CUNY can offer,” the letter said. “Professors are reluctant to accept positions at CUNY, and many current faculty members may have to consider leaving for other jobs. Ultimately, education suffers.” Both letters were addressed to Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie as he entered budget negotiations.

The union’s budget organizing this year emphasized a targeted approach, identifying legislators who had not yet committed to support the union’s priorities but who could be convinced. Meeting with legislators in their local districts proved especially effective, sometimes in combination with a quick appeal to PSC members to call or fax a legislator who was on the fence. In this way, the union was able to increase the number of legislators signing both letters, and the goal for the rest of the legislative session is to further expand that support.

PSC officers traveled to Albany again and again in March. Together with members meeting with their representatives and a radio ad campaign (see tinyurl.com/PSC-radio-letters-2015), the union gained a new level of visibility in Albany. “I’d be in a Dunkin’ Donuts or a legislative office and someone would say, ‘I know that voice – oh, you’re Barbara Bowen!’” said Bowen, the union’s president. “Inside the Capitol corridors, when a legislator saw us coming they’d make clear that they knew our issues.”

No NY Dream

In April, as the PSC continued to seek State support for a contract settlement, CUNY agreed that Albany should make this a priority. A CUNY administration statement said that University officials “will continue to work with all parties during the remainder of the legislative session on critical outstanding issues, including support for collective bargaining on behalf of CUNY faculty and staff.” Union activists said that in Albany, the CUNY administration had been most visible on the issue during the last month of the budget battle; they welcomed the stance, one the PSC had urged since last summer.

PSC leaders said that CUNY’s message in Albany did improve this year: instead of college presidents talking mainly about individual projects on their campuses, they focused more on the need to increase base funding.

Beyond CUNY funding, the budget agreement did not include the New York State DREAM Act, which would make tuition assistance available to New Yorkers who are undocumented immigrants. The executive budget linked this to a proposed tax credit for donations to private schools, but in the end, neither measure won approval. “This news breaks my heart,” said Claritza Suárez, an immigrant activist who is a student at Brentwood High School. “We’re going to keep pressuring the governor and our [State] Senators to make sure that the New York DREAM Act becomes a reality this year” – an effort that the PSC and the CUNY administration both support.

In a struggle over a new teacher evaluation system, while Gov. Cuomo did not get everything he wanted, New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) condemned the final measure: “This evaluation system…is an unworkable, convoluted plan that undermines local control, disrespects principals and school administrators, guts collective bargaining and further feeds the testing beast. It does nothing to help students.” NYSUT President Karen Magee said that teachers will keep organizing “to ensure that the State addresses what kids need, that educators’ rights are supported and that evaluations are fair, meaningful and focused on improving teaching and learning.”