State higher education leaders petitioned the Legislature on Thursday for greater aid in the next budget to offset a festering deficit within New York's college and university system and the planned shuttering of SUNY Downstate Medical Center.
At a budget hearing in Albany, lawmakers blasted plans to close SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, expressing anger to State University of New York leaders and asking them to reconsider the hospital's future with greater public input.
Gov. Kathy Hochul's executive budget includes funding to transition many of the hospital's inpatient services to a SUNY Downstate wing of Kings County Hospital located across the street.
"Our community sees this as a closure of their beloved hospital," Brooklyn Assemblywoman Monique Chandler-Waterman said. "They do not agree with this plan, and I stand with my community. ... We are clear we need to reimagine how we make SUNY Downstate hospital more sustainable to minimize the number of jobs lost."
Lawmakers criticized how they learned of the decision at the last-minute last month, and that state Health Department officials learned of the plans to close the facility from news reports.
But SUNY Chancellor John King said the hospital's future depends on securing greater assistance from the state in the next budget.
"We need to have, in this budget, a path forward that addresses the deficit," King said during testimony. "We also need a path forward that addresses the facility."
SUNY, on track to amass a $1 billion deficit over the next decade across its 64 campuses, cannot afford to sustain the 342-bed hospital operating at a $100 million deficit and will run out of money this summer.
The only state-run hospital in New York City is in severe disrepair and the needed upgrades would total $4 billion. King said a new similarly sized facility is would cost about $3 billion, and could take eight to 10 years.
"Downstate is a major issue, and I'm not even from Brooklyn," Sen. Robert Jackson said. "... We need real talk in order to save Downstate Medical Center."
"I'm committed to saving the hospital; that's what we're trying to achieve," King replied.
The closure will lead to the loss of 10-20% of United University Professions members, or the labor union that represents most SUNY faculty and staff. UUP president Fred Kowal wants Gov. Hochul to stop the closure.
"It will restrict the opportunity for students to be educated and become nurses, and doctors and technicians that we desperately need," he said. "There will be that ripple effect that will harm all of us."
UUP wants SUNY to go through a more detailed planning process for the transition that includes more input from stakeholders and the public to make a future plan for the hospital and ensure it continues to receiving its needed operating and capital funding.
"There's no way to avoid the fact that this as a state-operated hospital is going to need state support," Kowal said. "There's two reasons: The high percentage of Medicaid patients, the other, the three SUNY hospitals are the only state agencies that have to pay the fringe benefit cost of employees and debt servicing. Those are huge costs."
Last year's budget included $163 million in operating aid for SUNY — a historic increase that was not expected to be repeated. Hochul's budget proposed $54 million in SUNY operating expenses this year.
King on Thursday also said SUNY needs more support from the state to help cover higher salaries for faculty and staff that will cost the university system an additional $86 million annually.
"I'm hopeful that the governor and the Legislature will find a way to just ensure that there are modest increases and support for SUNY year over year so we don't end up in that deficit situation," King said.
Hochul proposed $650 million for SUNY's capital projects, but SUNY has an $8 billion capital projects backlog. King wants significantly more capital funding, asking for $1 billion to invest in university centers.
"We would love to see more capital investment in our university centers so we can double research, bring those federal dollars to the state and also spur economic development," the chancellor said.
SUNY leaders and lawmakers also want more for community colleges, asking for $97 million more to make up for years of disinvestment.
Lawmakers' big focus for higher education funding this year is expanding the Tuition Assistance Program, or grants that help low and middle-income New Yorkers attend college. The award has been capped for people making less than $80,000 annually since 2000. The minimum eligibility should be $145,000 if the program kept up with inflation. All panelists at Thursday's hearing voiced support for the proposal.