April 2, 2015

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UUP advocacy praised during North Country chapter visits

uupdate 4-2-15

UUP’s distinctive red T-shirts in the halls of the Legislative Office Building this budget session clearly made the difference on several critical initiatives, UUP President Fred Kowal told UUP Plattsburgh leaders on the first stop of a visit by UUP officers to North Country chapters.

“One area where we can justifiably be very proud: We hit a grand slam with the opportunity programs,” Kowal told Plattsburgh leaders as he reviewed the highlights of the new state budget. “Not only did we get back the $1.3 million that was cut; we got $4.4 million above that.”

Kowal credited that success to the huge UUP turnout in Albany by members and students Feb. 27 on behalf of SUNY’s opportunity programs. Newly elected Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie – a former Educational Opportunity Program counselor at SUNY Stony Brook –made it clear that he backed this program for low-income SUNY students.

Advocacy will continue

Not all the budget news was so good. UUP does not consider $18 million designated for Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s performance-based funding initiative for SUNY campuses an appropriate funding method. The enacted budget’s version of this plan is less severe than the governor’s original proposal, but it does little to address the fact that SUNY students pay 63 percent of operating costs through their tuition and fees.

The budget restores the governor’s $18.6 million cut to the SUNY hospitals, but leaves open the question of oversight over $700 million allocated for capital spending on hospitals in Brooklyn. And the state education commissioner will have the power to suspend and deregister graduate teacher preparation programs if 80 percent of the students in those programs do not pass deeply flawed teacher certification exams.

Kowal said work will continue on legislative initiatives of interest to UUP, such as approval of a New York DREAM Act that would allow undocumented college students to access state financial aid programs. The union will plan several other advocacy days in the remainder of the legislative session.

Kowal was accompanied by Vice President for Professionals Philippe Abraham and Secretary Eileen Landy, who accompanied Kowal and met with chapter leaders in Potsdam and Canton. Such regional meetings give statewide and chapter leaders an opportunity to discuss what works and doesn’t work in advocacy efforts.

Out of earlier meetings with Buffalo-area chapter leaders, Kowal noted, came the idea to schedule visits to lawmakers much later in the day, so that students and members didn’t have to board buses for Albany before sunrise. That idea worked, as was proven by the strong turnout of 400 students and members for the opportunity program advocacy day in February.

Several hot-button issues for UUP resonated with the Plattsburgh leaders, including UUP’s fight to improve the teacher certification process and protect teacher preparation programs, and the union’s push for adequate EOP funding. Five Plattsburgh UUP members serve on the UUP Task Force on Teacher Education, and Plattsburgh hopes to expand its EOP program, chapter leaders said.

Plattsburgh Chapter President Karen Volkman said it was disappointing to realize that lawmakers could not prevail over more than a decade of severe underfunding to SUNY.

“Obviously, we’re very concerned,” she said. “This campus is only about 22 percent state funded right now. We’re very disappointed in the student debt initiative the governor has put through because it would only cover a small number of students.”

Planning what’s next

Kowal told the group that SUNY has many strong friends in both houses of the Legislature and on both sides of the aisle, and that many made a difficult choice to vote for an on-time budget. Had the state been forced into a contingency spending plan, he explained, the governor might have worked even more punitive policies into bills required to keep the state operating during an impasse. Lawmakers recognized this threat, and many did their best to mitigate the harshest aspects of the budget.

“For some legislators, having an on-time budget drove them to vote in ways they were not happy about,” Kowal told the group. “They were really caught between a budget and a hard place.”

Now, UUP is thinking not only to the next budget, but to the next electoral season and beyond, Kowal said. Dozens of new lawmakers have indicated an interest in learning about the union’s legislative initiatives. UUP will continue to support candidates friendly to higher education.

And the best lessons of this budget session will be refined for future use. Tops among those lessons: numbers count and lots of red T-shirts in the LOB hallways make an impression. With 35,000 members spread throughout the state in fairly small groups, UUP has to deliver maximum effect by encouraging different people to show up on different advocacy days.

“We have to punch above our weight,” Kowal said. “We have to appear stronger. Showing up in numbers, we look like more than we are. Then the legislator thinks, ‘Wow, more people from Plattsburgh? A lot of people must care about this; I’d better start paying attention.’”

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