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NY Governor Kathy Hochul has accomplished a lot

The election returns indicate that New York has lost at least four currently Democratic seats in Congress to Republicans. If the total Republican number in the House ends up at 221, then those four seats would have given the Democrats a slim one-vote majority. The blame game started immediately. It was the fault of Governor Cuomo’s appointments of Republican Judges. It was the fault of the Legislature over-reaching with an extremely partisan gerrymander that was quickly ruled unconstitutional. It was the fault of Governor Kathy Hochul for running a lackluster campaign. It was the fault of DCCC chair Sean Patrick Maloney (my Congressman).

[For these and other arguments, check out Caroline Vakil, “Democrat Blame Game Erupts over New York Midterm Losses,” The Hill (11/13/22) available here. See also Olivia Ebertz, “Outgoing Rep. Mondaire Jones: Cuomo, NY Democratic leaders, cost the state key congressional seats,” Gothamist (11/13/22) available here.]

My personal first reaction was to put at least some of the blame on Governor Hochul. MAGA candidate Lee Zeldin was able to run a spirited campaign that cut what should have been a two-digit margin to only seven points. In fact, the Hochul campaign actually got pretty worried and poured extra resources into her efforts to counter some of Zeldin’s highly effective campaign ads and slogans – but only at the end. Zeldin may not have won, but his campaign energized many Republicans who probably would not have bothered to vote. Perhaps that made the difference in seats the Democrats should have won.

I agree that a forensic analysis of why New York Democrats did so terribly in what was otherwise a fantastic year for the national Democrats is in order. However, I wish to take a different tack. Instead of “piling on,” I want to highlight some important achievements by Governor Hochul in the months since she took over from Cuomo. The areas I want to focus on are women’s reproductive rights and funding for the City University of New York.

When I moved back to New York State in 2009, I started what ended up being four very rewarding years teaching at John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York (CUNY). For those unfamiliar with CUNY, it was founded in 1847 as a totally free institution of higher learning. In the 1920s and 30s it was the primary ladder into the professional classes for thousands of first-generation Americans including both my fathers, Julius Rosenberg (CCNY, 1939) and Abel Meeropol (CCNY 1925). My wife’s father, Vincent V. Karusaitis, the son of Lithuanian immigrants, went to college and medical school at CUNY. My wife Annie received her BA from Queens College (1965), also tuition free. Though it introduced tuition in 1976, it remains a fantastic bargain for working class people in New York City. A quick look at google tells me that it currently serves 243,000 students and graduates about 55,000 a year.

As a member of the Professional Staff Congress – the union representing CUNY workers --- I had a front row seat observing the frustrations of this dedicated group of students and the workers responsible for their education with Governor Cuomo, who despite his Democratic designation, displayed palpable hostility to CUNY and its unions.

The State Senate was effectively controlled by the Republicans because for many years, a small minority of nominally Democratic State Senators voted with Republicans, giving them a virtual veto over CUNY budgets. During those years, Governor Cuomo seemed perfectly content to go along, permitting one House of the Legislature to low-ball the needs of students at CUNY. Funding for CUNY per full-time student equivalent fell over the course of Cuomo’s terms as Governor leading to a host of unmet needs. Here’s another fact: “Cuomo has governed New York since 2011. State aid to CUNY, adjusted for inflation, has declined by nearly 5 percent during his tenure, though the state’s gross domestic product has increased.” (Ross Barkan, “If Cuomo Cuts Funding, CUNY Layoffs Will Be a ‘Bloodbath’,” The Nation (May 20, 2020) available here.)

Even before Governor Hochul took over, CUNY unions proposed what they called a “New Deal for CUNY.” The specifics were introduced to the public and the State Legislature in February of 2021. The union publicized the series of proposals in The Clarion, which can be accessed here. The union and its allies introduced the set of proposals with the following summary: “In February, the PSC and a coalition of CUNY advocates and state legislators unveiled the New Deal for CUNY, an ambitious piece of legislation that would not only save the university from further state budget cuts, but reverse decades of underfunding. The goal of the legislation is not merely to fix CUNY, but to protect the quality of education. It aims to restore a tuition-free university and increase the number of faculty and staff.”

By the way, there is a solid economics-based rationale for investments in public higher education, especially in a city like New York full of incredibly motivated young people, many of whom immigrants themselves or the children of immigrants. There was a detailed article supporting the “New Deal for CUNY” in the NY Daily News (3/8/21) which touted the great “return” on “investment” in CUNY. For details, see Andrew Gounardes, Karines Reyes and Juvanie Piquant, “Invest in CUNY, get big returns: A new call to fully fund the system,” available here.

Here’s an important quote from that article: “CUNY is our city’s engine of social mobility. The 1.4 million alumni who graduated over the past 50 years earn $65.8 billion annually — compared [to] a projected $32.6 billion if they had obtained only a high school degree. CUNY reports that the vast majority of its graduates continue to live in New York after completing their degrees, contributing to our economy and our tax base.”

(And for those in other parts of the state concerned about their tax dollars going to “help” New York City, plenty of these graduates may end up living out of the city but within the state. And plenty of the workers at CUNY, faculty and support staff, live out of the city as well, recycling their CUNY incomes into the local economies on Long Island and in Westchester and other northern counties. Anecdotal sample of one: during my years working at CUNY, I lived in Putnam County.)

Among the proposals in the “New Deal for CUNY” were an effort to bring the ratio of full-time faculty to students up to the national average, to provide for a return to free tuition, to provide a five-year plan for capital repairs, and to finance CUNY by taxes on high income people. Though Governor Hochul did not support the “New Deal for CUNY” she and the Legislature did increase funding for CUNY dramatically in the budget agreed to this past spring.

[For details see Samar Kuhrshid, “State Budget Includes Big Boost for CUNY,” Gotham Gazette (April 14, 2022) available here.]

Operating support for CUNY increased $240 million – which included $53 million to hire full time faculty. As the union noted in their publication supporting the “New Deal for CUNY” demands, the ratio of full-time faculty to students had fallen dramatically over the years

“In 2003, both CUNY and SUNY maintained overall ratios of 43 full-time faculty members to 1,000 full-time-equivalent (FTE) students in the four-year colleges, a number already below national norms for public universities. By 2017, the ratio at SUNY had increased slightly, to 47, while at CUNY it dropped to 35. At certain colleges within both systems, however, the ratio is even lower.”

(In recent decades, institutions of higher education have increased the ratio of credits taught by adjuncts -- who are paid thousands less per course than full time faculty. Thus, this is a national problem not limited to New York City.). Though not getting as far as the proposals for a “New Deal for CUNY,” the increased funding in the budget was a welcome change from the experiences CUNY has had negotiating with Cuomo --- especially when the State Senate was effectively controlled by Republicans. The budget also included $69 million in increased tuition assistance for part-time students. Distinct from the operating support is over $950 million in capital funds. When public organizations are strapped for funds, routine maintenance is often the first budget item to be cut. Years of such penny-pinching left much of CUNY’s infrastructure in disrepair. Here are some details from a recent CUNY report: “Since 2007, CUNY has analyzed and reported on the state-of-good-repair of its facilities. Most recently, in 2020, CUNY undertook a self-audit of its 254 owned buildings using life-cycle methodology. The analysis identified the University’s backlog of deferred maintenance and projected anticipated future needs which together are used to shape CUNY’s Facilities Renewal request. This analysis identified a $4.3 billion backlog, with $6.8 billion needed over the next five years to fully address both the deferred maintenance backlog and ongoing renewal.” The entire report is available here.

Though not meeting all of CUNY’s needs, the Legislature’s increased capital spending is very welcome indeed.

Due to declining enrollments at CUNY Community Colleges as a result of the COVID pandemic, community colleges had been slated to suffer $80 million in budget cuts. Instead, the Legislature held off in hopes that as COVID fades into the rear-view mirror, enrollments will pick up. In order to facilitate that, the Legislature froze tuition at all CUNY colleges for a year.

I can say without fear of contradiction that the Legislature would have had to fight Cuomo to get such good results for CUNY and would undoubtedly have had to compromise on all of these expenditures.

On reproductive rights, the Legislature and Governor Hochul reacted to the leaking of the Alito decision overturning the Roe precedent by enacting six laws which provided strong defenses of abortion rights and abortion providers. Forewarned by the incredibly draconian (and disgusting) Texas law which not only criminalized abortion but “out sourced” the enforcement of that prohibition to bounty hunters, the Legislature and Governor Hochul put the full force of the New York State government up against enforcement efforts from other states seeking “abortion criminals” who had availed themselves of services LEGAL in New York.

Three laws, for example, are there to protect anyone who comes to NY who might be sued in or prosecuted from states that have criminalized abortion. Among the new laws is an exception to the rules governing extradition. Beyond that, law enforcement agencies in New York State are prohibited from cooperating with institutions in states which have criminalized abortion activities --- which, remember, remain totally legal in New York.

Another law prohibits professional misconduct charges against healthcare practitioners if that practitioner, acting within their scope of practice, performed, recommended or provided reproductive healthcare services for a patient who resides in a state where such services are illegal.

Still another law prohibits medical malpractice insurance companies from taking any adverse action against an abortion or reproductive healthcare provider who performs an abortion or provides reproductive healthcare that is legal in the state of New York on someone who is from out of state.

Finally, another law protected the privacy of reproductive healthcare services providers, employees, volunteers, patients, or immediate family members of reproductive healthcare services providers --- allowing them to enroll in New York's address confidentiality program to protect themselves from threats.

The entire list of bills and details beyond what I have written above is available here.

Yes, there is plenty of blame to go around for the disastrous showing of New York Democrats in some Congressional districts, but right now, I think it is more useful to focus on the good things that Governor Hochul and the Legislature have accomplished since Governor Cuomo left office.

Citizens of New York should praise what has been accomplished in the current budget and continue to pressure the Governor and Legislature to increase support for CUNY. All praise is due the Legislature for acting decisively to defend reproductive rights. The state government should follow those laws and vigorously defend abortion providers, abortion seekers from other states, and those who help people from states where abortion has become illegal to travel to New York and receive services in New York.

Obviously, there is a need for a federal law codifying Roe but that will have to wait for the next election when the House can flip back to Democratic controls and the Senate Democratic majority can be expanded.

Until then. I am VERY GLAD I live in New York State.

Michael Meeropol is professor emeritus of Economics at Western New England University. He is the author with Howard and Paul Sherman of the recently published second edition of Principles of Macroeconomics: Activist vs. Austerity Policies

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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