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Grisanti among 5 targeted in push against school aid cuts

Newly elected State Sen. Mark J. Grisanti of Buffalo is about to find out what it's like to be a swing vote in the rough-and-tumble battle over the state budget.

Grisanti is one of a handful of freshmen Republican senators targeted by education advocates opposed to limiting property tax increases and cutting state aid to local schools.

The New York State United Teachers union and the Alliance for Quality Education, a school advocacy group, are sponsoring the effort to pressure Grisanti.

"I expected it," Grisanti said this week. "It doesn't bother me. I anticipate a lot of people are going to be unhappy with this budget."

In office less than a month, the Democrat-turned-Republican is quickly finding himself a popular target for public employee unions and other organizations trying to influence the State Legislature.

As a newcomer many view as politically vulnerable -- registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 5 to 1 in his district -- Grisanti is seen as one of the wild cards in this year's budget process.

"It doesn't put any fear in me," Grisanti said of the campaign targeting him and four other GOP senators. "I'm going to remain independent and do the best I can."

Senate Republicans are coming under pressure because the chamber's new GOP majority generally supports Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's plans to erase the state's $10 billion budget deficit. Those plans are likely to include cuts in education funding.

In a new twist of sorts, NYSUT and the alliance are bringing their lobbying effort to each of the five legislators' home districts.

"It's important for all legislators, not just these five senators, to hear the concerns parents have about the devastation that budget cuts to education would have," said Carl Korn, NYSUT spokesman.

Organizers say the groups are basing their campaign on the notion that "all politics is local" and that the best way to influence lawmakers is to engage their communities.

"They are going to come under a lot of heat to just take cuts," Billy Easton, the alliance's executive director, told the Associated Press.

The campaign will include rallies, phone banks and direct mail, as well as efforts to organize parents, teachers and community leaders who share the groups' opposition to reducing education aid.

The organizations also oppose a limit on property tax increases, one of the primary reasons NYSUT declined to endorse Cuomo or Carl P. Paladino of Buffalo, Cuomo's Republican opponent in last year's gubernatorial race.

Cuomo has endorsed limiting local property tax growth to 2 percent a year or the inflation rate, whichever is lower.

"I'm still on the fence," Grisanti said when asked about a limit. "I'm not sure what the big benefit is to our region."

He knows a property tax cap might affect schools on Grand Island, which is part of his district, but he questions its impact on school spending in Buffalo.

Unlike their counterparts in the suburbs, Buffalo school officials can't raise taxes to finance higher spending. The district relies entirely on contributions from the city, state and federal governments.

When asked about education aid, Grisanti said he doesn't like the idea that funding for local school districts might be cut. But he thinks some reduction is inevitable because of the size of the deficit.

"I'm sure there's going to be cuts," he said. "My job is to keep them as small as possible."

The state spends about$20 billion a year on school aid, a figure each side interprets differently.

NYSUT officials say the figure represents an 8 percent reduction in state aid the past two years. They also claim the drop in education aid resulted in the loss of about 10,000 mostly vacant education jobs across the state.

Cuomo says the $20 billion represents the highest per-student spending in the nation. State officials also note that federal stimulus funding to local schools, a revenue stream now ending, made up for much of the reduction the past two years.

Both sides agree that cutting education aid is one of the most politically unpopular things a lawmaker can do. Two recent polls suggest a large majority of New Yorkers oppose deep cuts in education.

Grisanti said he constantly runs into people who remind him that he was a Democrat who ran as a Republican last year and insist that, with the heavy Democratic registration in his district, he more than most should be nervous. He changed his party enrollment to Republican after winning the election.

"I'm not going to be pressured," he said. "I'm not even looking at two years from now. If I'm still here in two years, fine. If I'm not, I'll be back working in my law practice."

The four other senators targeted by NYSUT and the alliance are Patty Ritchie of Oswegatchie, Lee M. Zeldin of Shirley, Jack M. Martins of Mineola and Gregory R. Ball of Patterson.

e-mail: pfairbanks@buffnews.com

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