NY Lawmaker Sorry for ‘Poor Choice of Words’ On Tuition Bill

BROOKLYN -

A Brooklyn lawmaker apologized Monday for an inflammatory interview she gave invoking race to explain why she’s not supporting a potentially historic tuition aid bill that would help yeshivah parents.

Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte, a Democrat who represents a significant portion of Jewish Midwood, said that her words, which seemingly blamed pressure to vote for the bill on her being a black woman, were misconstrued. She also told Leon Goldenberg’s “Community Matters” radio show on Motzoei Shabbos that she was only listening to those who voted for her on the issue of private school help.

“There is a great deal of strong feelings on all sides of the proposal to give tax credits to donors to private schools,” she said in a blog post. “I represent my entire district, and while there will be disagreements at times, we should always seek to find common ground however emotional an issue is.

“This was evident during a recent radio interview I had with Leon Goldenberg,” she added, “and I apologize to anyone who was offended by my tone and the poor choice of words I used.”

Bichotte, a Haitian-American who last year replaced the retiring Rhoda Jacobs, had complained that advocates of state aid to parents of non-public schools were pushing her more than they did her predecessor or former Speaker Sheldon Silver, both of whom are Jewish.

“No one — no one — ever pushed them the way you guys are pushing me,” she said. “And I have to ask, is it because I’m a woman? Black? I mean, is it because I’m a freshman? I expect the same level of respect and by the same standard of understanding.”

Recognizing this as the first real opportunity to alleviate the often crushing tuition burden from parents, advocates have warned lawmakers representing Orthodox districts that they will be judged on how they vote on this bill when it comes to supporting them for reelection.

Assemblyman Dov Hikind, a Democrat who represents a nearby district, said that he accepted her apology.

“When someone apologizes for this kind of rhetoric,” said Hikind, who had condemned Bichotte the day before, “it closes the chapter,  and hopefully it’s a one-time occurrence.”

Bichotte said she wants to be “a voice uniting the religious, racial and economic groups around education reform.”

Bichotte had been discussing Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s bill, which is divided into two parts. One would give a direct $500 tax credit per child to low-income parents who send to private school. The other allows donors to specially set up scholarship funds to deduct 75 percent of their contribution from their tax bill.

Parents who send their children to yeshivos or parochial school have long felt discriminated against — their property taxes goes to pay for the $21.5 billion public school budget, but they must still pay for tuition.

Bichotte said that while she does not support Cuomo’s bill — she calls it “feeding the mouths of corporations and millionaires” — she is a prime co-sponsor of a similar bill that she says is better. However, prompted several times by Goldenberg, she could not promise that it will get a vote in the Assembly.

Bichotte’s bill would give every parent a tax credit per child up to $500, or 12.5 percent of their tuition. The first $1,000 cannot be applied to the credit and it is capped at $5,000. And there is no income limit, meaning that all parents, whether they send to public or private school, are eligible, regardless of how much or how little they earn.

“Of course, the costs of tuition are much higher than these amounts,” Bichotte writes, “but it is a step in the right direction.”

A third bill, sponsored in the Senate by Senators Simcha Felder and Martin Golden, does not have the direct tax credit but does have a beefed-up tax deduction. It allows a 90 percent deduction and allocates more money for it.

Unlike Cuomo’s and Bichotte’s bills, the Senate bill has already passed one of the legislature’s two chambers. The June 17 end of session marks the deadline to get a bill passed this year.

On Monday, Cardinal Timothy Dolan visited the Capitol to encourage lawmakers to pass Cuomo’s version. The Catholic leader met with the governor and top lawmakers.