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A setback for UB; Region also loses as Legislature rejects push for university reform

Chalk this up as a State Legislature accomplishment: New York's universities have been impoverished, and have been kept from helping themselves and the cause of higher education in this state.

In attempting to minimize political pain in a tight-times budget, lawmakers accepted Gov. David A. Paterson's $152.4 million executive budget cut for the State University/City University of New York system but rejected its trade-off -- the Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act -- that could have delivered an expanded, economy enhancing university to Western New York. SUNY and the University at Buffalo got slapped -- twice.

Worse, defeat for the statewide version of the UB 2020 plan came when local Democratic Sen. William T. Stachowski dropped his threat to withhold his crucial vote unless the plan was included in the flawed two-house budget passed Monday. Stachowski's thin claim to the affections of Western New Yorkers hung from his championship of the UB 2020 plan, and his caving in on Monday was the second step in a two-step failure; had he not meekly accepted a lesser post instead of the powerful Finance Committee chairmanship he was promised as Democrats sought control of the Senate in the last election, this region might have had enough clout to get this measure passed.

Instead, downstate interests once again dominated. Repeating the concerns of some of his fellow Democrats, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver delivered a verbal blow to the hopes and dreams of economic vitality in Buffalo and to the ability of the state university system to determine its own future: "We'd love to give it up if it was reasonable and if we knew that poor students were protected," he said in dismissing the measure that was supported by student groups and construction unions as well as university system and campus leaders, but opposed by faculty unions.

Heads of state universities have complained about their current inability to control their own fate. The measure in question would allow campuses to set their own tuition rates through rational and predictable tuition increases instead of occasional "spikes" in what current students must pay, smooth procurement and contract practices and facilitate development partnerships with private companies. That would put New York in line with other state university systems, which now have an advantage.

Campuses have proposed some increased financial assistance to offset increased costs for low-income students, and tuition-assistance programs remain within reach of state legislation. Assembly Democrats, however, prefer simply to dump the entire reform package. It's an extreme approach and one that threatens the fate of UB 2020, which has been touted as having the ability to create thousands of jobs, expand the campus to downtown and produce new ventures with private businesses. Even partial success on that score would be a needed boost for this region.

This issue is not completely dead. Vague promises by some Democratic lawmakers to push for separate passage or a UB/Stony Brook "pilot program" seem unlikely, but the governor could still try to pass key parts of this measure through chapter amendments to the university system law. That needs to be pursued, but in the meantime this Legislature has hurt Western New York.

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