This week at the Capitol, we’ve heard about a push for universal free lunches, we’ve heard from lawmakers hoping to put new restrictions on IDAs giving tax breaks, and Gov. Kathy Hochul awarded $100 million for 50 school districts and BOCES to address pandemic learning loss, all as key players continue to express concerns about the governor’s proposal to end a policy known as "Save Harmless."
On Thursday, lawmakers will gather in Albany for a joint hearing to address the state’s education budget. It’s an opportunity for members of the Legislature to hear testimony from those on the front lines.
On Wednesday though, lawmakers and advocates gathered at the Capitol in support of a bill co-sponsored by state Sen. Sean Ryan and Assemblymember Harry Bronson that would prohibit Industrial Development Agencies from awarding credits that waive tax money that would otherwise be used to fund education.
John Kaehny of watchdog group Reinvent Albany says it’s a long time coming.
“For the first time we have the teachers union and education interests saying something and standing up after decades of watching local taxes be taken away from them,” he said.
Spectrum News 1 reached out to Empire State Development as well as local Industrial Development Agencies for comment but did not hear back.
Much of the oxygen devoted to education at the Capitol however continues to be taken up by deliberations over a proposal in the governor’s executive budget to end "Save Harmless."
It ensures that districts don’t see a decrease in Foundation Aid funding compared to the previous year with some experts predicting that certain districts will receive significantly less funding as a result.
Senate Republicans this week came out in force with a press conference pushing alternative means of funding. State Sen. Jim Tedisco, ranking member on the Education Committee, sharply criticized the governor’s plan to use state reserves to address the migrant crisis.
“If you want to take a reserve, take it to a priority like education which all of our constituents say it is,” he said. “The important thing I said to them is we aren’t going to go quietly into the night, allowing them to balance this budget on the backs of our kids.”
When asked if the governor’s plan to do away with "Save Harmless" was “untouchable” by the Legislature, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins didn’t hold back.
“We are the Legislature, we don’t consider anything untouchable,” she said.
Stewart-Cousins never directly indicated support of the governor’s plan.
“We know that we are required to have a balanced budget and we understand that for the most part our priorities align, but we are very very concerned,” she said. “We pride ourselves on being the education conference and that has not changed.”
In responding to Senate Republicans, the governor came out swinging.
“They really display a fundamental lack of understanding when it comes to basic budgeting,” she said.
Hochul, as she has been saying since her budget address two weeks ago, stressed that infusions of education funding during her first years in office were meant to right the ship — unsustainable long term and fiscally unrelated she stresses — to her use of surplus funds to address the migrant crisis.
“Don’t call it a cut when you look at where we started in 2021 when I became governor, almost $7 billion more in education,” she said. “I’m not saying go back to 2021, I’m just saying I can’t give you a 18% increase on top of the $7 billion we just did.”
The governor reiterated that "Save Harmless" was the spot to scale back because many of the schools who qualified had seen their enrollment drop, and she says some have a significant amount of money reserves. It’s an explanation though that has not made the desired impression on Republicans in either chamber.