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Advertising war begins over state budget gap

The ad opens with a beautiful image of Niagara Falls and an announcer saying, "New York is a state filled with remarkable places and remarkable people, a state where anything is possible."

And then comes the real message:

"But our government in Albany hasn't been as good as our people. It's not only broke, it's broken."

There's always an opening salvo in political battles, and the Niagara Falls ad appears to be just such a blow in what promises to be a contentious public relations war over New York's budget.

But this time, it's not public employee unions firing the first shot, it's New York's business community.

"We all need to do what we can to help," said Andrew J. Rudnick, president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership and a member of the Committee to Save New York. "For too long, folks who care about reform have tended to believe, perhaps naively, that right makes might."

State and local business leaders are joining forces as part of the committee, an anti-spending, anti-tax organization intended to offset the influence of public employee unions.

The group, which already has $10 million in the bank and wants to raise twice that amount, was formed at the urging of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

"I encourage people to join that group," Cuomo said during a recent visit to Jamestown. "The special interests have had the loudest voice for too long. So I encourage participation by people. I encourage participation by other groups to make their voice heard."

Even more telling, perhaps, is that the committee is taking a page from labor's playbook by airing TV ads and creating a website -- letsfixalbany.com -- as part of its advocacy campaign.

But as the business coalition starts its campaign, another well-financed partnership of school advocates and the state's largest teachers union is preparing an effort to oppose Cuomo's fiscal plan, including a cap on local school taxes.

The Alliance for Quality Education, which helped unseat some incumbent senators in November, is joining with the New York State United Teachers union.

The union is providing the alliance with $425,000 for use over four months to pay for staff in several counties, according to the Associated Press, and this coalition is targeting potentially vulnerable senators, including Mark Grisanti of Buffalo. The money will pay for rallies, local news events, phone banks to build pressure on Albany, mailings and door-to-door campaigns. It aims to mobilize clergy, parents, teachers and community leaders around their schools.

In addition, the NYSUT is doing its part to set the stage for the contentious fight over how to erase the state's $10 billion budget deficit.

A radio ad featuring two teachers, one of them a Buffalo native who now teaches in Jamestown, makes no mention of the budget crisis but emphasizes the importance of educating New York's youth.

"Making schools and communities stronger," Andrea Figueroa, a teacher and president of the Jamestown Teachers Association, says in the ad. "It's what we do."

The goal is to put a face on NYSUT's members as part of a larger strategy of influencing New Yorkers and ultimately state lawmakers.

In the end, union officials hope to convince the public, and the legislature, of the need to preserve funding for local school districts.

"We're obviously going to use the airwaves to explain why education and public services have to be protected," said NYSUT President Richard C. Iannuzzi.

For now, labor is maintaining, at least publicly, a wait-and-see attitude toward the Committee to Save New York.

"At this point, we don't see any reason to respond," Iannuzzi said of the committee and its initial ad.

Of course, that could change overnight if the group ratchets up its rhetoric.

Union leaders know that Medicaid and education aid are two areas being targeted by the 15-member committee and that a property tax cap is one its top priorities.

They also know that any significant cut in state funding will mean the loss of unionized jobs in hospitals and schools, not to mention the state work force. Lawmakers indicated last week that Cuomo is considering the layoff of more than 10,000 state employees.

If that fear becomes reality, the result could be a high-profile battle with TV and radio ads serving as the weapons of choice.

"We certainly don't want that to happen," said Darcy Wells, spokeswoman for the Public Employees Federation. "We need to see what comes out of the budget first."

The strategy of using the public to influence the legislature is nothing new for union leaders. What is new is the fact business leaders are following suit.

And so is Cuomo. Since taking office earlier this month, the governor has used every opportunity to urge participation by residents and taxpayers of New York. His visit to Jamestown was just one example of his taking his message to the voting public in hopes of pressuring the legislature.

Whether it works remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: The governor has a powerful ally in the Committee to Save New York and its who's who of business.

"We need to get our message out," said Sandra Parker, president of the Rochester Business Alliance and a committee member. "We all anticipate and know from history there's going to be significant pushback to Andrew Cuomo's agenda."

Less than a month old, the committee is not without its critics, including good government groups concerned about a lack of transparency.

"They should be as pure as Caesar's wife," said Blair Horner, legislative director of the New York Public Interest Research Group. "They're a sophisticated group of individuals who know what they're doing, and who are coordinating with the governor."

The committee earlier this week said it would register as a lobbying group.

A good first step, said Horner, but not enough. He still thinks the committee should disclose the identity of donors.

"People don't spend millions of dollars in Albany because they're feeling charitable," Horner said. "They do it because they want something in return."

A few of the group's donors, including the state Business Council and the Real Estate Board of New York, have publicly acknowledged their involvement, but most remain unidentified.

Wells said the state's unions also want to know what the committee and the business interests behind it are preparing to sacrifice during the coming budget debate.

The suggestion is that the remedy to the budget problems is not just cuts but increased revenues and higher taxes.

Business leaders are dead set against higher taxes, and some are just as quick to dismiss the notion that the identity of donors be made public.

"I don't know if that's necessary," Parker said. "If I choose to give, why does that need to be made public?"

Rudnick would not disclose the identity of his local donors but stopped well short of endorsing the group's current stance against disclosure. He expects that to be a topic of discussion when the committee meets for the first time in New York City this week.

Whatever the outcome, he thinks the group will remain united in its primary mission -- helping Cuomo offset the influence of organized labor.

"If the past is prologue," Rudnick said, "he's going to get a lot of visible pushback from public employee unions."

He also thinks the days of New York's business leaders watching that pushback from afar are over.

News Staff Reporter Brian Meyer contributed to this report.

e-mail: pfairbanks@buffnews.com

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