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Fighting for Funds in Albany

Aryeh Werth

Thursday, March 17, 2016

You couldn’t help but notice the guy in the orange hawk costume — the mascot of a state-funded college — hugging the young state senator. And it was hard to miss the 20 or so doctors in white lab coats parading across the lobby armed with briefing packets. Then there were the senior citizens shouting “stop GMOs [genetically modified organisms]!”
Welcome to budget season at the New York State Legislature in Albany. From early March until April 1, when the budget must be passed, interest groups flood the castle-like corridors of the state capitol building to make their case with legislators.
But along with the protesters and school mascots, trays of hamantaschen also appeared, heralding the arrival of the Orthodox Jewish delegation.
About 50 yeshivish and chassidish men and women assembled in the stately Senate conference room to meet with Majority Leader John Flanagan and several other key senators. Organized by Agudath Israel of America, this annual grassroots lobbying day empowers Agudah members to exercise their political rights as the Agudah leadership pushes its agenda this month.
Agudah officials told legislators that dire financial issues are facing yeshivos, but they made clear that passing the education tax credit (ETC) is their priority. In his budget proposal, Gov. Andrew Cuomo included a $150 million credit for donations made to private education scholarship organizations as well as public schools. Individual and corporate donors would receive a state tax credit for 75% of the donation, up to $1 million per donor.
The Senate passed a similar bill earlier this year, but the proposal is expected to face major obstacles in the Assembly. That’s where last year’s ETC bill died, as it has for several years in a row. This year might be no different.
After the Agudah delegation met with several Assembly members, Mishpacha asked Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D) if he would push for ETC’s passage. “It’s not about me pushing it through,” he said. “It’s about consensus among the members and there’s not enough support among the conference to do the ETC.”
The main reason for the Assembly’s lack of interest is fierce opposition by powerful teachers’ unions that oppose diverting tax dollars to private schools.
“It appears that the teachers’ unions feel that every dollar spent on education is a dollar they deserve,” said Chaskel Bennett, an Agudah trustee active in legislative affairs. “They want 100% of the pot.”
Just days before the Agudah arrived here, the anti-ETC coalition held a rally in the capitol building.
“We believe that it is obscene that at a time when we should be making strong frontline investments in public schools… the Senate and governor are considering implementing a plan that would be a reverse Robin Hood for millionaires and billionaires around the state,” declared Charles Khan of Strong Economy for All Coalition at the rally.
The Agudah is fighting back with the help of an important ally, the New York State Catholic Conference. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, was expected to lobby for ETC in Albany this week.
The Agudah’s other priority proposal is likely to face an easier, though not easy, path to passage. The delegation advocated for an increase in state funding for security equipment needed by nonpublic schools.
“We’re asking our elected officials to recognize the dire threats faced by the Jewish community and are asking for sensible compassion,” said Bennett, who made a presentation on this issue. “The government has a moral obligation to protect its citizens. There can be no disparity between the safety of public school and private school children.”
For the past three years, the state allocated $4.5 million annually for the program, an amount that equals about $11 for each of the 413,000 nonpublic school students in the state, a third of whom are yeshivah students.
Based on the security risk faced by Jewish schools, the Agudah is urging the state to raise funding to $75 per student. It’s a significant increase, but Agudah officials pointed out to legislators that New Jersey spends $144 per student on a similar program. The money would pay for target hardening at schools, such as security cameras, access control systems, security assessments, and alarm services.
Unlike the ETC, this proposal doesn’t involve creating a controversial new program and is driven by security concerns, which should be an easier sell.
In his remarks to the Agudah group, Assemblyman Dov Hikind, a Democrat, expressed frustration that it was so hard to get fellow legislators to support the Agudah agenda. “We have to beg for a couple of dollars for security? Gimme a break. Who doesn’t get it?”
According to the Agudah’s Bennett, if Jewish schools are threatened in some way, legislators will be asking why they didn’t do more to protect them.
“G-d forbid something happens, elected officials will be challenged,” he said. “The time to fix this is now.”



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