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Politicians Feel the Love, But Not the Kids and Teachers

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At a press conference celebrating drastic cuts to state funding for education and health care for the poor, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, both Democrats, and Senate Majority Leader, Dean Skelos, a Republican, had an old sixties style love-in. As Silver and Skelos smiled, Cuomo kept on asking, can you feel the love. Unfortunately, it was love for fellow politicians, not for kids, the poor, and for much maligned teachers. At least one politician, Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City, who I have often castigated, termed the budget deal an "outrage" that would lead to massive lay-offs in education and health.

Bloomberg had asked the state to provide $600 million but only about $200 million was allotted under the Cuomo plan. The mayor projects that with these cuts the city will have to reduce the teaching staff by 6,100, eliminate 20 fire companies, and operate 100 fewer senior centers.

According to a survey of public school superintendents by the New York State School Boards Association, 118 districts would not have enough reserves to cover their state aid cut. Eighty-one percent of the superintendents who responded to the survey said they will have to lay off teachers. Over seventy percent of the districts plan to increase class size,
reduce or eliminate extracurricular activities and athletics, and reduce elective courses. While Cuomo brags he balanced the budget without tax increases, 85 percent of the district superintendents said they will be forced to ask voters to approve a property tax increase for next year.

New York Stated United Teachers, which represents local teachers' unions on the state level, said the union will continue to fight for continuation of the income tax surcharge on the wealthiest New Yorkers. According to a Siena Research Institute poll, 71 percent of New Yorkers support asking millionaires to share the pain and help alleviate the worst of the budget's cuts.

The Cuomo budget, which was negotiated in secret, is a virtual war on the middle class, working people, and the poor. It calls on us to make sacrifices, while exempting the wealthiest New Yorkers. It includes an annual spending slash of roughly $3.4 billion with a $2 billion year-to-year cut in health care and education. The district-by-district impact of the cuts is not yet available and the geographic distribution apparently has not yet been determined.

In addition to the cuts in education and health care, the governor refused to extend state rent regulations, which are set to expire in June. Meanwhile, Cuomo blocked continuing the state's higher tax rate on people in the top income brackets that would have prevented many of the budget cuts.

Cuomo, who was elected governor with labor support that he has now apparently alienated, seems determined to make a name for himself in national politics as a Democrat who can cut deeper to the bone than right-wing Republican governors in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. Deeply ambitious, it is not clear whether he is maneuvering for a Presidential run in 2012 in the event Obama falters even further or will be content to wait until 2016.

In a few short months in office, Cuomo has assumed virtually dictatorial power, ignoring calls for compromise and the teachers, parents, and students who have rallied around the state and marched and lobbied in Albany. He threatened that if state legislators missed an April 1 budget deadline, he would put his preferred cuts into an emergency spending measure, forcing them to vote for his budget or risk shutting down state government.

Despite the announced deal, some Democratic Party insurgents, the teachers' union, and other groups are continuing their efforts to force reconsideration of those measures. Some Democrats have in recent days openly discussed voting against a budget that is too austere. New York City Council member Charles Barron has threatened that "Whereever he shows his faced people need to confront him. I am an elected activist. I don't think we should throw out anything from our arsenal to get some improvement in the lives of the working people of this state." In February, Barron interrupted Cuomo when he spoke at a reception for the Association of Black and Latino Legislators in Albany, chanting "Stop the cuts, tax the rich," and, "Shame on you."

At the news conference announcing the budget cuts, Cuomo declared "It's a new day in New York." He should have added that it is also a sad day.