Just two weeks before an election that could flip control of the State Senate, the state's powerful teachers union has lifted its freeze on endorsing 35 state senators.
New York State United Teachers, one of the most influential special interests in the Capitol, gave its well-timed backing to the three dozen lawmakers, including several involved in the fight of their political lives for re-election next month.
Those winning the union's endorsement include Sens. William Stachowski, a Lake View Democrat, and Dale M. Volker, a Depew Republican; both are facing stronger-than-expected challengers this fall. It took no stand, however, in the tight contest between Joe Mesi, a Town of Tonawanda Democrat, and Michael H. Ranzenhofer, an Amherst Republican, for the Senate seat held by Sen. Mary Lou Rath of Williamsville, who is retiring.
Incumbent Sen. George D. Maziarz, of Newfane, was among the Republicans newly endorsed by the teacher's union. He's seeking his seventh term in the 62nd District and is being challenged by Niagara County Sheriff's Deputy Brian D. Grear, who is running on the Democratic line.
The union's endorsement releases donations to candidates, access to its sophisticated phone bank operation that uses computerized databanks to call thousands of voters a night and a sprawling field operation that helps candidates get voters to polling places on Election Day.
Last week, Senate Minority Leader Malcolm A. Smith, a Queens Democrat, told The Buffalo News that Republicans were seeking to use their opposition to any midyear state cuts in school funding to push the teachers union off the fence in a number of key contests. Republicans now control the State Senate, 31-29, with two seats vacant, but Democrats are considered to have the best chance in years of taking over the chamber.
In August, the union withheld support from the lawmakers following a special legislative session in which the GOP-led Senate backed a
measure imposing an annual limit on property tax increases. The bill died in the Assembly.
But with Gov. David A. Paterson calling lawmakers back to Albany next month to deal with what he said Monday could be a $2.5 billion hole in the state budget that took effect April 1, the union said its key priority right now is to beat back any move that might lead to midyear funding cuts for the 700 school districts across the state. All the endorsed senators have said they would not support such reductions.
Asked if NYSUT, which has 600,000 members, implicitly was backing the GOP efforts to maintain control of the Senate, Richard C. Iannuzzi, the union's president, said: "It is not. It's a statement about issues." He said the prospect of midyear cuts is the "primary issue on the table for us right now, and we're looking to be supportive of those who understand the devastating effect that midyear cuts would have on education."
NYSUT, he said, remains "on the sidelines" on whether the Senate should shift to control by Democrats after seven decades in the hands of Republicans. Had that not been the case, he said, the union could have endorsed challengers in a few of the battleground races, which it did not. It did not endorse one incumbent Democrat -- Darrell J. Aubertine of Cape Vincent in the northern part of the state -- who is facing a GOP challenge next month.
Smith, the Democratic leader, suggested last week the Republicans were frantically courting NYSUT to end its neutrality to help several Republican senators whose re-election bids are in trouble.
At the time, Iannuzzi confirmed NYSUT was re-evaluating its endorsement position because, in a visit to Buffalo last week, Senate Majority Leader Dean G. Skelos, a Rockville Centre Republican, drew a clearer line in the sand against the prospect of any midyear school funding cuts. Following word of the GOP overture, several Democrats, including Stachowski, approached NYSUT to insist they would not back any Paterson efforts to cut school funding now.
Paterson has not laid out his budget cut plans, but on CNBC Monday morning he dismissed any lawmakers who are taking things off the budget-cutting table at a time when the state's budget woes are worsening.
In a report Monday on the state's economy, State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli warned of tougher times ahead. While personal income tax collections rose 15 percent during the first six months of the state fiscal year over last year, business tax revenues were off by 13 percent. The figures do not include the full impact from the meltdown in the nation's financial sector. They also do not include bonuses paid to Wall Street workers, a sizable source of cash to the state when they are paid in December and January.
"The state started the fiscal year with surprisingly strong personal income tax collections that fueled growth in state revenues. But that growth is falling off, and things are looking very shaky," DiNapoli said.