PSC focuses on Albany
It’s never too early for the PSC to plan its state budget fight. And in this campaign, the state budget will be finalized in April of next year. The union has reason to be optimistic about its struggle for the full funding of CUNY. The union has an energized membership and the chief advocate for austerity at CUNY, Andrew Cuomo, has been forced out as governor by a sexual harassment investigation.
Will Governor Kathy Hochul hear what PSC has to say?
Luke Elliott-Negri, the PSC legislative representative, said that the union has a golden opportunity to work with the new governor, Kathy Hochul, on a fair budget for CUNY. “We at the PSC are excited to engage with her on the vital importance of CUNY, not just to New York City but to the whole state,” he said. “The stars are aligned for a big higher education year in 2022, and we are confident that Governor Hochul will play a key role in making transformative investments in the CUNY and SUNY systems when the state budget is finalized next April 1.”
Spring is just around the corner, so the union’s Legislative Committee is organizing now for a budget campaign. The governor is the most important player in the budget process, but is also influenced by others toward whom the union must direct its advocacy: the leaders of the state legislature and CUNY administration, including but not limited to the assembly speaker, senate leader, CUNY chancellor, the CUNY Board of Trustees and the chairs of the Assembly and Senate Higher Education Committees. With both legislative houses controlled by Democrats, including progressives who ousted Republican-aligned incumbents in 2018, as well as labor-oriented democratic socialists, the upcoming budget cycle is an opportunity to push for more progressive taxation on the wealthy to fund vital public services and education, including CUNY.
The new executive in Albany also creates an opportunity for CUNY’s Board of Trustees to become a vocal advocate for fair funding for CUNY, PSC President James Davis said. For the last several years, the union has been critical of the board for acquiescing to the Cuomo administration’s austerity budgets, leaving the union and its allies like the CUNY Rising Alliance to push publicly for robust CUNY funding. With Cuomo gone, the union sees the chance for trustees to advocate more vigorously for the university system with which they are entrusted.
As PSC Secretary Penny Lewis put it, the political climate in the state makes it possible to frame CUNY as “the kind of New Deal investment happening in other parts of our society,” and that the union is “seeing that there is excitement around public institutions and CUNY should be at the center of that.”
Hochul, a centrist from Buffalo, may be more open than Cuomo to progressive demands. Because she is likely to seek a full term next year, she will likely need support from unions and other progressive organizations based downstate. The New York Times also pointed out that Hochul was going to great lengths to distance herself from her predecessor, including “providing a more complete coronavirus death toll,” introducing “a new ethics training requirement for all state employees” and “replacing most of Mr. Cuomo’s inner circle with top staffers of her own,” while also making a point of “meeting with elected officials who warred with Mr. Cuomo, including Mayor Bill de Blasio.” Many PSC political activists see this change in state government as crucial to securing a good state budget for CUNY.
James Vacca, a distinguished lecturer of urban studies at Queens College and a former city councilmember recalled, “I found her to be a very good listener, and that’s what you need.”
Nancy Silverman, an academic program coordinator at the Graduate Center who is active on the union’s Legislative Committee, said, “It seems that Hochul is not as hostile toward New York City and to the left, which is pushing our New Deal for CUNY in the state legislature. With Hochul, we have an opportunity because she seems open to at least thinking about these ideas [and] hopefully supporting them.”
Silverman hoped that one immediate first step the new governor could take to improve the union’s relationship with the executive branch is to remove Robert Mujica, the state budget director, from the CUNY Board of Trustees, as he has served as Cuomo’s key austerity enforcer for CUNY. Despite being a CUNY alumni, Mujica, who joined the board in 2016, helped the governor consolidate his control and limited the board’s independence to pursue needed tax-levy resources
CUOMO THE CRUEL
To many CUNY observers, Cuomo was especially harsh on CUNY, which serves a population of more than 270,000 students, approximately 70% of whom are people of color. He once attempted to cut state aid by almost $500 million, and his aggressive austerity led to a severe overreliance on adjunct faculty and contributed to delays in the union’s collective bargaining with the university. Cuomo quietly vetoed the union-backed “maintenance of effort” bill, which would have required each annual state budget to include funds for both CUNY and SUNY to pay for the inflationary increases in operating costs at the four-year colleges, such as rent, utilities and contractual salary increases. Only under continued pressure from the PSC and its allies, did Cuomo agree last year to begin closing the “TAP gap,” which was draining the operating budgets at CUNY colleges.
“To reverse years of racialized austerity at CUNY will require political will and a different vision for what public higher education can be,” said Davis, “and that is exactly what we will press Governor Hochul to deliver.”
It may be a new day for state budget organizing. The PSC plans to seize the opportunity.