A group of Agudah activists spent Wednesday in the Capitol cajoling recalcitrant lawmakers, strengthening allies and confronting opponents, in an effort to revive chances for a breakthrough on a potentially historic education tax credit.
The Agudath Israel of America delegation, headed by Rabbi Shmuel Lefkowitz, the groups’ vice president for community affairs, and Leon Goldenberg and Chaskel Bennett, members of the board of trustees, divided themselves into small groups.
The more than two dozen activists met in Assemblyman Dov Hikind’s office in the morning, then fanned out throughout the chamber, approaching individual lawmakers to garner support for the Education Investment Tax Credit.
The message, Bennett said, was that there was no reason a $142 billion budget could not find some leeway to help private school parents from the crushing burden of tuition.
“Billions of dollars are added to public education and the state can’t figure out a way to help private schools with 50 to 75 million dollars? Is this too much of a lift?” Bennett questioned.
The bill would set aside at least $100 million — $150 million in the Senate version — a year in tax credits for donors to education funds, half to be used for public education and half for non-public tuition aid. But on Monday it was shelved by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie until after the budget passes at the end of next week.
The emergency trip to Albany on Wednesday was meant to try to save it.
“The bill was dead [on Tuesday],” said Leon Goldenberg, an Agudah trustee from Flatbush. “I feel that our trip to Albany brought it back from cardiac arrest and there are now talks about it. I don’t want to say that we’re hopeful but we feel that it was a well-worthwhile trip.”
Goldenberg’s open letter to Cuomo which appeared in Wednesday’s Hamodia, calling out the governor for retracting his publicized support for the EITC — “justice delayed [is] justice denied,” he wrote in a full-page ad — helped make a dent in the opposition, he said.
Goldenberg has been a supporter of Cuomo in his election and reelection. But he was dismayed when Cuomo, who called the tax credit “a matter of justice” before his last election, now said that it was not his priority.
While the legislation can technically be passed until the end of session in June, Albany observers have said that there is little chance for that to happen. While many legislators would vote for the entire $142 billion budget even if the EITC were there, they would not vote for it as a standalone bill.
For this reason, supporters of the tax credit were insistent that it be returned to the budget negotiations between Cuomo, Heastie and Senator Majority leader Dean Skelos. If not, at least three assemblymen, Hikind, Michael Simanowitz and Philip Goldfeder — the latter two are Queens Democrats and shomer Shabbos — say they will not vote for the budget. A fourth, Steven Cymbrowitz of Midwood, said he was considering it.
The main sticking point is Cuomo’s insistence that the EITC be paired with the Dream Act, legislation to pay for college for illegal immigrants, and both should be passed together. The EITC, a Senate priority, is opposed by Democrats who control the Assembly. The Dream Act, a priority of the Assembly, has been called a nonstarter by Republicans who have the majority in the Senate.
But talks still continue and Hikind said that it may still pass.
“A couple of weeks ago things looked bleak, and that’s an understatement,” Hikind said. “Things still looks tough but we’re in the game.”