No harsh cuts, but no full funding either
For public higher education advocates, the reaction to this year’s state budget agreement is lukewarm.
On the one hand, Governor Andrew Cuomo did not attempt to push through any drastic spending cut to CUNY of the variety that led to massive union-led civil disobedience and other protests in 2016, and that jeopardized the outcome of contract talks between the union and CUNY. On the other hand, the PSC, along with other CUNY advocates such as CUNY’s University Student Senate (USS) and NYPIRG ran a weeks-long lobbying and media campaign demanding full funding for CUNY to make up for years of austerity funding from the state. The final spending package this year fell regrettably short.
The PSC knew from the outset that the fight for a just budget was going to be an uphill battle: with federal cuts to the state expected next year, the governor and legislators crafted a lean budget on the expectation that cuts would be necessary a year from now. Through lobbying visits, TV and radio ads, phone calls to lawmakers and rallies throughout the city, USS, PSC and their allies clearly stated that the historic state underfunding of CUNY is unacceptable, and that a bigger state investment is needed, not just for affordability but also to meet student needs. The union and student groups argued that, in addition to freezing tuition, a state budget should fund more full-time teaching lines and a significant pay increase for adjunct instructors.
“State funding for CUNY senior colleges remains essentially flat in the enacted budget,” PSC President Barbara Bowen said in a statement. “The vast majority of new funds for CUNY will come from annual tuition increases paid by the students who do not qualify for the terms of the Excelsior Scholarship. (See p. 3) The tuition hikes approved for the next four years come only with a promise not to cut state funding; there is no commitment to cover rising operating costs.”
She continued, “We thank CUNY’s champions in Albany and are grateful for the inclusion of funds for past collective bargaining increases for which a commitment was made last year. And we acknowledge the legislature for fully funding CUNY’s opportunity programs and the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) initiative, while also improving the state’s per-student investment in community colleges. But state funding per student at CUNY still lags behind pre-recession levels, when adjusted for inflation. In a year in which the governor rightly emphasized the importance of public higher education, it doesn’t make sense to deny CUNY the funding it needs to ensure student success.”
PSC First Vice President Mike Fabricant noted in a dispatch to members, “Our struggle in Albany to produce increased investment in CUNY was an uphill battle from the beginning. In the last two months you rallied to help the PSC make its best case for a significant increase in state investment. Your phone calls and email messages were heard and commented on by many legislators. You did an extraordinary job in fighting for the budget CUNY needs and deserves. Your work did result in some victories.”
The union sees the organizing effort conducted by faculty, staff and students as laying critical groundwork for future budget battles and contract campaigns, making the case that workforce issues and the delivery of affordable education to students are inherently linked.
The final state budget – a result of prolonged negotiations between the governor, the Democratic-controlled State Assembly and the Republican-controlled State Senate – did contain some other general victories. For example, the final budget extends the millionaires’ tax for two years, which PSC along with other unions and economic justice groups had argued is vital to maintaining much-needed revenue for the state. The budget also included a five-year extension of the 421a tax break intended to promote more affordable housing in the New York City. And the budget makes big headway on the humanitarian front: more 16-and 17-year-olds will be moved out of adult courts and jails.
CUNY management was more upbeat about the outcome for the university. CUNY Board of Trustees Chairman William Thompson and Chancellor James Milliken said in a joint statement, “The budget also provides substantial support for CUNY’s facilities and provides much needed operational funding. And, in another significant boost to our students, the state will be providing innovative support for online textbooks that will greatly reduce the cost for thousands of CUNY students. We are grateful for Governor Cuomo’s leadership in expanding access to affordable, quality college education for so many New Yorkers, helping ensure that we have the educated and skilled workforce that is necessary to grow the economy for a better New York for all.”