In the topsy-turvy world of New York state politics, two freshmen lawmakers of differing political stripes who represent Buffalo-area residents in the State Senate on Friday expressed surprisingly different positions regarding their support for Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo's budget bill.
In a meeting with the Editorial Board of The Buffalo News, Republican Sen. Mark J. Grisanti said he needed assurances about the UB 2020 plan from Cuomo or his staff within the next few days to ensure an affirmative vote on an expected state budget agreement.
Meanwhile, Democrat, Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy was adamant that the budget should be voted down. Kennedy encouraged a group of about 200 parents, students and educators during a forum at an elementary school in Sloan to urge their own representatives in the Legislature and others to vote against the governor's plan because, he said, it takes money from the region's school children and puts it in the pockets of Wall Street millionaires.
"Albany needs to get its priorities straight, and that means re-prioritizing this budget," Kennedy said. "As we try to close this $10 billion budget deficit, it seems there are better uses for our state funds and depleted funds than to give millionaires a tax break."
Grisanti, who won a close election in an overwhelmingly Democratic district last fall, partially on the strength of promises to vote against any budget that does not include the UB 2020 plan, was more equivocal. He said he might be swayed to vote for the budget, but only if he is assured UB 2020 will be backed by Cuomo and the Assembly on a timely basis.
"We need a dialogue in the next few days to see where the governor is on all components of the bill," Grisanti said. "I need some kind of commitment from the governor that if this is not in the budget, it will happen in this session.
"I don't want this to just fade away," he added.
Kennedy, on the other hand, was insistent that the budget would be a bad deal for Western New Yorkers, many of whose school districts, he said, could not bear the brunt of deep cuts in state aid that it would entail. The result would be devastating cuts in academic and after-school programs, as well as the loss of teachers, he added.
"If we were to hold the line on taxes for millionaires, our state would have enough revenue to restore critical funding for students. Instead this budget cuts taxes for Manhattan millionaires," Kennedy said.
Grisanti said he would change his former position on the budget bill if he is assured the UB 2020 plan will be addressed outside the budget process, because he realizes he does not have the "leverage" to influence budget passage in the Senate.
"The budget was leverage," he said. "But I can see the writing on the wall, and my vote is not going to hold up passage of the budget."
He added he has not gone to Albany to create budget chaos by holding out for UB 2020.
"I don't want to be a creator of dysfunction," he said. "I want to be someone who solves dysfunction."
The Senate plan would let the University at Buffalo, along with SUNY campus centers in Binghamton, Stony Brook and Albany, raise tuition on an annual basis and keep the money for campus operating expenses instead of giving most of the proceeds to the state's general fund.
It also would make it easier for the colleges to enter in public-private partnership deals. For UB, the plan is key to its major downtown redevelopment plan.
Grisanti said he believes from a series of Thursday meetings that the once-reluctant Assembly may be coming around on the UB 2020 plan. That, in combination with assurances of immediate attention after the budget is passed, ultimately will influence his decision, he said.
"I've got to see the commitment coming forward," he said, "and hopefully it's a solid commitment. It would show good faith among the powers in Albany and the governor that we exist and that this is important."
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