THE CUNY BUDGET: MOMENT OF TRUTH
By Edward Schneir, City College

 

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NEWS BULLETIN

APRIL 2001

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"Teach CUNY" and the Classroom

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Against Common Sense

 

 

 

Between the officers, the members of the Legislative Committee, and a remarkable number of rank-and-file volunteers, the Professional Staff Congress has shown new muscle in lobbying the New York Legislature this spring. But the state’s decisions on CUNY’s budget are not yet made, and the final result is still uncertain.

The PSC has established a real presence in the state capitol. Every state legislator from the metropolitan area and many upstaters now know—as a surprisingly large number did not—that we have a union that is newly active in the political arena. “The shock in Albany is that CUNY now has an outspoken and proactive union, and we just won’t go away,” said Brooklyn College chapter chair Tibbi Duboys.

On March 21, PSC members took a union bus to Albany to join in lobbying with fellow AFT members from SUNY. Scores of members telephoned or wrote to their Senators and Assembly members, urging them to support the union’s budget proposals.

These efforts have succeeded in convincing a number of legislators that even in a “normal” fiscal year with surpluses, CUNY is mired in a deep and debilitating financial crisis. This had a real effect on the Assembly’s version of the state budget, even if it did not embrace the union’s entire proposal. The Assembly’s budget proposal calls for $40.7 million more than the Governor’s budget in direct operating support for CUNY. Its budget resolution includes $15.1 million for new full-time faculty lines ($9.9 million for senior colleges and $5.2 million for community colleges). This is in addition to the Governor’s request for $5 million for full-time lines. Taken together, the $20.1 million proposal would translate into approximately 350 new full-time faculty for CUNY. The Assembly also added $9.8 million to increase the state’s operating support for community colleges in fiscal 2002, and proposed over $15 million in increases for other programs such as SEEK, childcare services, etc.

In his executive budget, Governor Pataki proposed a $20 million lump-sum appropriation for CUNY. But Pataki’s budget proposals, when adjusted for inflation, are actually cuts in funding for both CUNY and SUNY. This is not a surprise at this stage in budget negotiations: in fact, it is par for the course. For three decades—through the governorships of Hugh Carey, Mario Cuomo and George Pataki—the executive budget has lowballed education as a bargaining ploy with the legislature. When the numbers show decreased state aid for elementary and secondary schools, both the Democratic assembly and the largely suburban Republican caucus in the State Senate rush to the rescue. CUNY and SUNY, lacking the political muscle of suburban PTAs, may not do quite as well, but in normal years they have enough allies in both houses to at least get back what the governor has tried to take away.  


PSC Executive Director Deborah Bell makes the case for the PSC budget proposals  to Steve Simon, chief of staff for Councilman Stanley Michaels, as Michaels listens.

The Assembly’s numbers represent real progress for CUNY—but unfortunately, the State Senate essentially went along with the governor’s cuts. There are rumors that much of this is due to senatorial pique: the buzz in the corridors of the state capitol is that SUNY’s chancellor failed to respond to many of the State Senate’s requests for information on various SUNY programs, and that the Senate’s leadership demonstrated its annoyance by approving major cuts in those areas. Thus, the Senate’s budget may not reflect a firm desire to cut higher education this year. Still, it is not good to go into a three-way bargaining process with two strikes against you.

This year is especially important for CUNY, because a budget surplus and good spring revenue flows give the University a chance to make progress in restoring its “baseline” in the budget process. Decades of cuts have left both CUNY and SUNY far below the norms of previous years. Conservative political trends across the country have led to reduced support for public higher education in many states. New York is often described as a liberal bastion, but here the cuts have been especially severe. In fact, in the 1990s New York was 50th among the 50 states in increases in state and local support for higher ed. CUNY in particular has been the target of a wave of ideologically motivated attacks, which have served to rationalize cuts to its budget.

Fiscal trends have compounded the damage. In normal years, legislators and governors tend to compromise their competing budget priorities, with each agency’s “baseline” getting considerable weight. The idea of a budgetary “base” is that an agency’s essential structure will remain intact, even if spending goes up or down by a few percentage points. But when revenues are short, as in recessions or during Pataki’s first round of tax cuts, the rules of the game change dramatically. Because there are some programs that are legally difficult to cut (e.g., debt service and Medicare), and some that are politically sacred (elementary and secondary schools) even a relatively small ripple of revenue cuts hits some agencies like a tidal wave. If, for example, half of the budget is uncuttable, a spending cut of three per cent translates into six percent for the more vulnerable agencies. And this is exactly what happened to public higher education in the intermittent plague years of the seventies, eighties and nineties. The effects of such deep cuts get worse over time, because once an agency is hit with the kinds of budget cuts higher education suffered in years like 1995, its “baseline” is diminished in the years to come. Thus the 1996 budget’s “restorations,”  while they were fairly significant, did not even get us back to the 1994 baseline and have been lagging at a compound rate ever since. Overall in the 1990s, CUNY’s base was cut by more than 10% in real dollars, over 30% if tuition is factored out of the picture.

One of the main accomplishments of the PSC’s lobbying this year was to build awareness of how disastrous these cumulative cuts have been for higher education in New York State, and that the resulting problems cannot be overcome by “business as usual.”

When will this year’s budget be resolved? Even with a possible recession looming, there is little sense of urgency in Albany. The legislature celebrated the constitutional budget deadline of April with a motion to adjourn for a ten-day vacation. Since there are no budget increases in the continuing resolutions that keep the state going during protracted delays, neither the governor nor the Senate majority are much bothered by delays. But in the next few weeks, the deals will begin to be cut. This is a point in the process when the voices of angry citizens can have a great effect.

As for the City, Mayor Giuliani was slightly less penurious than he has been in past years, and the City Council will support some improvements. New York City’s budget only applies to community colleges and associate degree programs, and to a relatively small share of that, but it still is an important piece of the budget puzzle. When PSC First Vice President Steve London and Secretary Cecelia McCall lobbied members of the Council’s Higher Education Committee, they seemed responsive to the PSC’s arguments as London presented charts showing dramatic declines in full-time faculty and in state and city contributions per student.

In addition to pressing for increased state funding for such items as full-time lines, research awards, graduate student tuition and paid office hours for adjuncts, the PSC is seeking support from New York City for 116 full-time faculty lines, full restoration of the mayor’s proposed cuts, an additional $3.2 million for technology-assisted instruction, plus $2.8 million for non-teaching instructional staff and an advance allocation of $5.9 million towards eventual contractual raises.

Neither the state nor the city budget fight is over. While the PSC’s lobbying efforts have been visibly effective in the City Council and the State Assembly, the State Senate’s proposed cuts are very disturbing. “Despite the reassuring tone from area Republican Senators during PSC lobbying visits, they have not been heard from since,” said London. “They need to hear from us now—and members of the Assembly and City Council need to be fortified in their bargaining as well.”