NY Senate Set to Propose Historic Tuition Aid Bill

ALBANY -

A far-reaching education tax credit is set for passage in the New York Senate Wednesday, the same day Gov. Andrew Cuomo releases his budget blueprint for the 2016 fiscal year.

State Sen. Simcha Felder, a Brooklyn Democrat who caucuses with the GOP majority, told Hamodia on Tuesday that he intends to take the fight for this “monumental” bill in a statewide campaign leading up to an April 30 deadline to pass a state budget.

“I’ll be meeting public and non-public school administrators at an emergency meeting next Thursday to organize this effort,” Felder promised. “And more to come.”

Gov. Cuomo, a Democrat, the Republican-controlled Senate, and the Democratic Assembly each release their spending proposals in separate “in-house” budgets. The three bills are then passed in a compromise deal by Gov. Cuomo, Senate Leader Dean Skelos and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

Felder says he wants to harness parents of the approximately 400,000 New York students in private school for a robust “campaign” to write to the governor and assembly leaders, “to send a clear message that this bill must become a reality now.”

A call by Felder last year for calls to the governor’s and speaker’s offices prompted thousands of calls. But many people said afterward they had not realized how important the bill was until after Albany failed to include it in their final budget, Felder said.

So this year he wants to get a head start on pressuring legislators. That starts on Wednesday, when Gov. Cuomo lays out his budget proposal at the State of the State address.

“Tuition paying parents have suffered far too long,” Felder wrote in a follow-up email. “I am gratified the governor and the Assembly have expressed interest in my legislation. But until it’s done it’s not done. Families want and need help now — no excuses.”

The bill would allow 90 percent of charitable donations for education to be written off as a dollar-for-dollar tax deduction. So for example, a $500,000 donation to an “Educational Scholarship Organization” set up by an umbrella yeshivah group would reduce the donor’s tax bill by $450,000. The credit is capped at $1 million per donor.

While last year’s proposal had a $300 million price tag, Senate leaders halved the amount to $150 million this year to make it more palatable. That will increase next year to $225 million, and to $300 million in 2018. Money unused in one year will be rolled over to the following year. The measure will not refund tuition payments as an earned income credit.

The bill would not be “just another nice program for the non-public school community,” Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America said last year. It would be “a real game-changer.”

Half of the amount, or $75 million, will go toward improving public schools, such as for tutoring or to purchase teaching aids. The other half is geared for non-public schools, which mainly consists of the Catholic school system but also has a significant number of yeshivah students.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of the New York State Archdiocese last year visited Albany with an entourage of religious leaders. The state’s Catholic school system has been especially battered in the recent recession, having been forced to shut dozens of its schools. The group secured promises from Gov. Cuomo and other lawmakers to enact the tuition aid bill, but the legislators failed to come through.

The state’s total education budget last year was $21.5 billion, and public school advocates want that amount increased this year.

The Senate’s top Republican fired the first shot across the bow on Monday, when he released a statement urging Gov. Cuomo to include the bill, formally called the Education Investment Incentives Act, in his executive budget.

Skelos, of Nassau County, said that would “send a strong signal that in New York every student deserves access to a first-class education.”

The bill will be sponsored by Felder and Marty Golden (R-Brooklyn) in the Senate and by Michael Cusick (D-Staten Island) in the Assembly.

While the bill failed last year, advocates are hopeful that it will pass this year. At a campaign stop in Boro Park in 2014, Gov. Cuomo called the tax credit “a matter of justice.” And in an opinion piece he wrote for Hamodia in November, he again called for its passage.

Since Skelos became majority leader in 2010, several yeshivah-friendly bills have been signed into law, including free transportation for late-homecoming students and TAP. But Felder called that “nibbling at the edges” of helping parents with tuition expenses. The tax credit, he says, goes to the root of what many call a “tuition crisis.”

“The average person clearly would prefer to have their tax dollars help reduce tuition costs rather than go into the state treasury,” Felder said. “This legislation will, under all circumstances, clearly help you, your friends, your relatives, your neighbors, and schoolchildren throughout the state.”