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Blair Horner: Lawmakers Return To Albany

This week lawmakers return to the Capitol to begin the second half, the non-budgetary, part of the 2015 legislative session.  The second half of session likely will be dominated by a handful of issues, including some that dropped off the table during budget negotiations.

The New York City rent control law expires this June.  Advocates argue that maintaining the rent control law helps ensure that housing continues to be affordable in what is becoming one of the most expensive cities in the world.  The issue will be a top priority of tenants’ rights groups who will be opposed by New York City’s real estate industry, which has poured millions of dollars into Governor Cuomo’s and state lawmakers’ reelection bids.

Another top issue, again focused on New York City, will be extension of mayoral control of the city’s school system.  Until recently, the city’s schools were controlled by a more decentralized system that included local school boards and a city Department of Education.  In 2002, legislation passed that granted the mayor direct control over the schools.

In addition, there will be a debate over extending the state’s property tax cap.  Those big issues, plus some of the issues that got kicked out of the budget, like the education tax credit, the DREAM Act, increasing the minimum wage, and the women’s agenda legislation will drive the end of session.

Of course, there is always the possibility that the end of session could be overshadowed by ethics controversies – as was the budget process.

The U.S. Attorney had publicly stated that the public should “stay tuned” after his arrest and indictment of former Assembly Speaker Silver.  This past week, it was widely reported that one lawmaker under scrutiny is current Senate Majority Leader Skelos.  Whether anything will come of that is, of course, impossible to know right now.

But it’s safe to assume that when the U.S. Attorney says to “stay tuned” – implying that there are more ethics actions to come – we should.

Of course, lawmakers will take up hundreds of other issues.

One issue that is expected to get some legislative air time is the plan to extend the state’s so-called “SUNY2020” plan.  Despite the fact that the law doesn’t expire until next year, advocates are making a big push for lawmakers to this year decide to extend the program.

The SUNY2020 program has as its central component annual tuition hikes at SUNY, as much as $300 per year.  And tuition has gone up $300 every one of the years that the law has been on the books in 2011, a whopping 24% increase with at least one more year to go.

As part of the deal to hike tuition, the state agreed to a “maintenance of effort” promise.  Essentially, the state promised not to cut its support for SUNY, and that the new revenues generated by the tuition hikes would go toward enhancing college programs, not filling in budget cuts.

But that promise turned out to be a weak one.  For example, the maintenance of effort pledge did not include salary increases for SUNY, which means that $130 million for those increases had to come from somewhere, likely students’ tuition.  And the impact has been real: in 2008, before 2020 went into effect, students covered 50 percent of SUNY’s budget; they now cover 70 percent – thanks to the tuition hikes and the stagnant state support.

In 2010, the state’s overall budget totaled roughly $130 billion.  The current state budget has grown to $142 billion.  The state’s financial picture has improved.  Both the state’s and the nation’s economies are humming.

Why continue to shift the burden of SUNY’s costs to college students and their families?

As I mentioned earlier, the second half of the session is supposed to be one that grapples with non-budget issues, but extension of the SUNY 2020 plan obviously would be a rare departure.

That’s one sleeper issue for the remainder of the 2015 session.  Whether the “college tax”, aka tuition, continues to jump could be determined by June.  Hopefully, lawmakers will decide to give students a break by freezing SUNY’s tuition, instead of jacking it up.

 

Blair Horner is the Legislative Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

 

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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