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Cuomo makes case for inmate degree program

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo says he “gets it” when critics around the state lambaste his proposal to grant college degrees to New York prisoners still behind bars.

But in Buffalo on Monday, the governor said his task now is to convince skeptical taxpayers that the program will, in the long run, save them money.

“I get the ‘Why should I pay for college for prisoners ... I can’t pay for my kid. It’s absurd,’ ” he told editors and reporters of The Buffalo News while on a visit to announce 500 IBM jobs at a new downtown facility. “I get it. That’s what it sounds like.”

But he also said he will pursue the idea despite a barrage of criticism because it will save money by reducing the rate of return by convicts after their release. He cited studies showing that education provided to prisoners drastically reduces recidivism, providing a strong incentive for prisoners and taxpayers alike.

“Do it because it saves you money,” he said. “And if you’re worried about paying for your kid’s tuition, then you want to pay less taxes, so waste less money. Think of it purely selfishly, on the numbers. It will save you money.”

Cuomo touched on other matters during an afternoon-long visit:

• He provided little hope of more aid for the financially ailing Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, though he did not dismiss the idea.

• He defended his budget proposals as contributing to historically low tax rates while dropping unemployment levels.

• He reiterated that he has made no decision on whether to schedule a special election for vacancies in the State Legislature.

• He offered no definitive solution to opposition in West Seneca over housing of registered sex offenders in a residential neighborhood but said he understood the concern.

• He said he is preparing for his re-election campaign by not feeling “comfortable” about anything.

But on a day when he delved into his new college-for-convicts program for the first time here, Cuomo found himself again defending one of the most controversial proposals of his administration. He insisted that once skeptics examine the numbers, the studies stemming from research by Bard College and other institutions, and the prospect of significantly reducing prison expenses and populations, the idea begins to make sense.

“They hear it as a mushy-headed liberal program,” Cuomo said. “Forget that. Think of it from your own, selfish, economic point of view. It will save you money.”

Still, one reporter even posed the hypothetical question about college tuition for John Lennon’s killer – Mark David Chapman – which he did not answer directly.

“We’re talking about taxpayers. Just on the numbers,” he said following his IBM announcement in Classics V Banquet Center in Amherst. “It is cheaper to provide an education to a person while they’re in prison. Because the recidivism rate comes way down. So if you just wanted to save money, and if you said I’m tired of paying taxes, and the taxes are too high, and I can’t afford it, and I can’t pay taxes and pay for my kids’ tuition, it’s cheaper to provide an education in prison because the recidivism rate comes way down.”

He pointed to a 5 percent reduction in the prison population and a corresponding effort to close a number of prisons.

“I am desperately trying to get out of prisons; they are phenomenally expensive and they do very little good for anyone,” he said, citing the need to “get past this initial blush of ideology.”

Cuomo said while the current budget and its amendments do not specifically deal with the idea, he remains confident he and the Legislature can deal with it this session.

In other budget matters, the governor said he is aware of NFTA claims that state operating assistance has failed to keep pace with the expenses of running upstate’s largest bus system and a subway too. He also said he is aware that Western New York legislators are complaining about the allocations, but noted that all state agencies have been asked to observe constraint.

“I know it’s going to be a major discussion in the budget,” he said, adding upstate transit authorities are all slated for a more than 2 percent hike while other state agencies will receive no increase.

But he said he also knows area legislators are attempting to make their case in Albany.

“The rule is 2 percent growth,” he said. “This is my budget proposal; you go into the arena and the Senate and Assembly invariably argue for more money for a multitude of things. But I have heard that NFTA feels that’s not enough.”

Cuomo also said he has not decided whether to schedule special elections for 11 legislative vacancies that leave 1.7 million people without representation.

He said the idea is under discussion, but he remains wary of its cost.

“They are very expensive to do,” he said. “And if you don’t have to do it and you can just do it at the regularly scheduled session, that would be the best.”

Regarding the outcry by some West Seneca residents over the state’s effort to place convicted sex offenders in two group homes on Leydecker Road, the governor said he understands why local residents are “nervous.”

“It’s a real problem that we have,” he told reporters at Classics V. “Sex offenders are released at one point when they’re ‘treated and deemed not at risk for society.’

“But I totally understand the anxiety. And the location should be appropriate,” he added. “Obviously, they shouldn’t be in locations that would be an aggravating circumstance considering their situation.”

The governor spoke little of his impending re-election campaign, other than to say he always approaches such efforts with caution.

“I don’t feel comfortable about this afternoon; it’s not my personality,” he quipped. “You take every race seriously.”