Tuition Tax Deduction, Increased Yeshivah Aid Focus of Agudah Mission

Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel (R) and Mr. Shlomo Werdiger, with Sen. Simcha Felder between them, listen to a speaker Tuesday in the Senate chamber. (Hamodia)

A push for New York state’s legislature to clarify a tax deduction for tuition-payers and increased funding for yeshivos topped the agenda Tuesday at Agudath Israel of America’s mission to New York’s capital.

More than four dozen yeshivah administrators and Orthodox activists trekked to Albany for the annual event lobbying for the community. The group, including this writer, met with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s top staff and members of the two legislative chambers. Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul made a brief stop to greet the group.

It was a busy day at the Capitol, with hundreds of lobbyists and groups advocating for various causes, mingling at elevators and escalators. Several exhibits showcased state products, from maple syrup and yogurt to hunting gear and women’s rights.

The mission comes less than four weeks before the Albany deadline to pass a 2019 budget and as the Senate and Assembly struggled to complete their chamber’s respective funding blueprints ahead of a nor’easter forecast to hit the region on Wednesday.

A photographer takes a group photo Tuesday of the Agudah mission to Albany. (Hamodia)

At the top of Agudah’s list of priorities were two proposals to help yeshivos, although not the potentially historic direct aid to parents they advocated for in previous years.

The mission started off on a good note, with the announcement that the state will start reimbursing nonpublic schools for executing the mandate that all students be immunized at a rate of $29.39 per student. This is up sharply from the 60 cents allocated until now, a relic from 1984 that was never updated.

Avrohom Weinstock, associated director of Agudah’s education affairs department, made dual presentations to Senate majority leader John Flanagan and the governor’s senior staff.

“Last year I opened by doing this,” he said, slapping down two quarters and a dime. “This year,” he continued, “I am proud to be doing this,” pulling out a wad of bills. “Twenty, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 29, 50.”

The other priority reflected the recently-passed federal tax code, which extended a tax deduction used until now for higher education to encompass kindergarten through 12th grade as well.

Called the 529 account, the program allows parents to set aside tax-free money for education. While New York has until now allowed the account holders a limited tax deduction when they deposit and withdraw the money, some state lawmakers are arguing that the state benefit should not be extended for the new K-12 withdrawals.

Agudah disagreed.

“While many legal scholars believe that New York law automatically ties it to the federal change allowing K-12 use, others are unsure,” Agudah wrote in a fact sheet distributed to mission attendees. “If New York law does not allow K-12 use, then a parent who took a state deduction years ago for a contribution would now be penalized for using it to pay K-12 tuition by being forced to repay that deduction. New York must clarify its law so that it does not create a roadblock, preventing many parents from taking advantage of a federal law designed to assist them.”

The issue came up at meetings with the governor, Flanagan and an event hosted for Assembly members.

“It doesn’t cost the state, it doesn’t cost the federal government, it doesn’t cost the parents,” said Mr. Weinstock. “It’s not a game changer but it’s a help for tuition-paying parents.”

Details for the credit are still being hashed out, Mr. Weinstock told Hamodia, but an estimate is that it could save parents as much as $700 a year. It would be capped at $10,000 a family.

The 529 works as follows: Parents, grandparents or a family friend may deposit money into the federally-established account and withdraw it without having to pay taxes. Some of the details that still need to be worked on is how long it must stay in the fund to be withdrawn, one day or a week.

Flanagan, a Republican from Suffolk County, pointed to the hall outside, saying that this was a nonissue that could be resolved in a minute.

“All this takes is one phone call to an office across the hall,” he said. “This could happen before 1 o’clock. There’s no reason for you to have to expend all this energy on an issue that we agree with you fundamentally.”

At the Assembly event, held in a terrace near the Assembly chamber, Assemblyman Dov Hikind echoed Flanagan’s words.

“You know,” he told the gathered, “I looked at the agenda of the Agudah and it is so reasonable. You are asking for so little and it is a shame that it is so difficult.”

Yeruchim Silber, Agudah’s director of New York government affairs who organized the mission, said that the group was also advocating for an increase in the $25-per-student grant for security. Rabbi Silber noted that neighboring New Jersey is allocating the sum of $50 per student this year, and is raising it to $75 in next year’s budget.

Also on the agenda was a bill currently in the legislature that would bar local school districts from rejecting special education children from free busing.

The issue was made personal by Chedva Weingarten, a mother of two special needs children who spoke about the absurdity of having only one of her children transported by bus. Her husband, she said, had to take off from work for two to three hours each day to drive their older daughter home from that very same school.

“They did this — literally — with the stroke of a pen,” said Mrs. Weingarten, her hand sweeping the air.

Other issues that were brought up were the organization’s opposition to the Child Victims Act, which would allow victims of abuse to sue their private school for as long as 50 years afterward.

“The potential liability would be enormous,” said Peter Rebenzahl, a health-care executive who joined the group, citing the cost to his industry if a similar law would affect it.