Felder: NY Budget Deal Gives ‘Crumbs’ for Yeshivos

ALBANY -

The nearly $140 billion budget deal reached by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York state legislative leaders late Friday left tuition-paying yeshivah parents deeply disappointed, with the failure of a historic education tax credit proposal, which would have provided a dollar-for-dollar tax reduction for any funds spent on any type of education.

The collapse of the bill spearheaded by State Senators Simcha Felder and Marty Golden, which had already passed the state Senate, rankled Orthodox and other religious groups.

“Let no individual or organization try to convince anyone that this budget is good for tuition-paying parents or New York state’s children,” Felder told Hamodia on Sunday. “We have to stop being satisfied with the crumbs that they give us and demand what is rightfully ours.”

The education tax credit proposal came as close as it ever did to passing last week, decades after askanim first tried to bring it to state lawmakers. Its failure overshadowed some of the other news in the budget, such as the making permanent free transportation for late homecoming yeshivah students.

“In the real world they didn’t give us anything,” said one disappointed askan who was close to the negotiations.

“We, of course, appreciate the positive provisions of the budget,” Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, Agudath Israel’s executive vice president, said in a statement, “but the rejection of EITC is a difficult pill to swallow.”

James Cultrara, director of education for the New York Catholic Conference, was critical in a conversation with Hamodia.

“There was tremendous growth in the budget in terms of public schools,” Cultrara noted Sunday. “Frankly, given all that was in the state budget, tuition-paying families should be enormously disappointed that their needs were unaddressed. It is patently unfair and leaves them continuing to shoulder a dual burden of tuition and taxes supporting public schools.”

He expressed his disappointment with the governor who had told Cardinal Timothy Dolan during a rally in Albany two weeks ago that he was “in support” of the tax credit.

Cultrara said that his next step would be to “make known” to his constituency that “ultimately, the governor and legislative leaders let them down.”

“Never could I have imagined that the message of this year’s budget would be that education is important for all children in New York State, unless you attend a yeshivah or a parochial school.” Assemblyman Dov Hikind said in a statement. “This was the one legitimate way to bring relief to parents struggling, whether sending their children to a yeshivah or to a private or parochial school. It would have benefitted parents of public school children as well.”

However, the Orthodox Union in a press release Friday thanked Cuomo and the legislature for the “unprecedented amount of funding for non-public schools” in the budget, not mentioning the failed education tax credit.

The proposal would have allocated — out of a total of $21 billion for public education, including a whopping increase of $1.5 billion — $150 million for the coming fiscal year, and then $225 million and $300 million for the two following fiscal years, to fund the scholarship program. Half of those funds would have been earmarked for tax credits for private sector contributions to private school scholarship funds for needy students.

Askanim had worked together with the Catholic Conference to attempt to have it inserted in the budget in a way not to arouse traditional opposition from the powerful teachers unions. Circumstances appeared favorable, with Cuomo reportedly saying he would support it and the GOP Senate on board.

However, on Thursday night, when its passage became increasingly unlikely, Felder issued an emergency message for calls to the governor and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s offices.

Thousands, if not more, called over the following 18 hours. At one point, the speaker’s office closed down the lines due to the heavy call traffic.

In the final budget deal, however, worked out by Cuomo, Silver and the two co-leaders of the Senate — Republican Dean Skelos and Independent Democrat Jeff Klein — it was entirely excluded from the budget.

“The EITC would not have been just another nice program for the nonpublic school community,” Rabbi Zwiebel said. “It would have been a real game-changer, a program that would have generated tens of millions of dollars annually to help needy families whose children attend yeshivos and other nonpublic schools.”

Despite it’s not passing, Hikind commended the bill’s sponsors.

“I was told from the beginning that TAP would never happen,” he said. “I worked on it for many years until it came to fruition. This fight is not over. We will not stop until the Education Investment Tax Credit becomes a reality in New York this year,” he said.

In other issues related to yeshivos, the budget, which still must be voted on by Monday, a day before the April 1 fiscal new year, increases funding for mandated services and CAP (comprehensive attendance policy) reimbursements. For the first time, it also includes a special allocation to start repaying the state’s longstanding CAP reimbursement debt to nonpublic schools.

The nearly $160 million appropriation for both programs represents an increase of more than $21 million. But of that additional amount, $16 million was owed from previous years, while an additional $10 million is still owed.

More significant is the making permanent and increasing the funding level for late-hour school transportation services, a bill sponsored by Felder last year which particularly benefits yeshivah students, who come home after the regular 4:00 deadline.

Also in the budget is funding for school safety equipment and inclusion in a proposed $2 billion state bond to upgrade technology in schools. The bond issue, if approved by voters in a November referendum, may not benefit yeshivos since it provides unfettered internet access to students.

In other areas, the budget would provide some tax relief for businesses, homeowners and New York City renters and add $340 million for pre-kindergarten mainly in New York City.

According to the governor’s office, the budget keeps spending growth below 2 percent and increases school aid overall by 5percent. An estimated $1.5 billion in homeowner tax relief is tied to their local governments staying within a 2 percent tax cap the first year and then advancing consolidation or cost-saving plans the second year.

The administration estimates the budget at almost $138 billion. An additional $5 billion in the budget is one-time federal aid for ongoing rebuilding after Superstorm Sandy and the rollout of the Affordable Care Act to extend health coverage to uninsured New Yorkers.

The agreement includes public campaign financing for the statewide comptroller’s race as a pilot program. It would authorize matching public funds of $6 for each dollar of eligible contributions with limits of $4 million each for the primary and general election.

The deal would also establish a new independent enforcement officer at the board of elections to investigate violations of campaign finance laws. Budget legislation would establish some new anti-bribery provisions.

Cuomo told reporters Saturday that if those reforms are approved, he will close the special anti-corruption Moreland Commission he established last year.

The education amendments, filed early Saturday, contain $340 million for universal pre-K for each of the next two years, with $300 million for the city and $40 million for the rest of the state.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio had pushed for all-day pre-K for city students and authority from the state to impose a tax surcharge on the city’s highest earners to ensure reliable funding for five years. Cuomo opposed the tax, advocated statewide pre-K and promised to find money as soon as school districts choose to start.

The budget proposes $1.5 billion in pre-K appropriations over five years.

“It’s clearly the resources we need to create full-day, pre-K for every child in this city; that’s what we set out to do,” de Blasio said. “So from what we’re seeing so far, it’s an incredible beginning.”