Photo Credit: Jewish Press

For those of you holding your breath wondering whether the state budget would be passed on-time, you can all breathe now and take a collective sigh of relief. The state budget is on-time and the spending needle did not move much from the time the governor proposed his plan in January to what the legislature adopted at the wee hours of the morning on April 1 – no joke.

Lobbying, cajoling and advocates traveling to Albany for the past two and a half months did not seem to matter much except when you dive in to look at the details.

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Since most groups are pleased with the $175 billion spending plan one can only deduce that the deck chairs were merely shuffled around on the USS Cuomo to make room for items the governor missed and lawmakers wanted to have put in the budget.

Nonpublic school advocates are thrilled with the results in this year’s budget. In mid-March there was a field trip of sorts and a civics lesson when approximately 700 students, teachers and other education professionals trekked to Albany to state their case because they are told by experts to “show up and be seen,” according to Maury Litwack, executive director of the Orthodox Union-sponsored program, TEACH NYS.

“We talk to lawmakers about equitable education. The nonpublic school community is 15% of the population and we receive less than 1% of the educational budget and it’s not fair. We also focus on the safety and security of our children.”

As a part of this road trip, a cadre of approximately 50 TEACH NYS educators in leadership had a private dinner meeting with Governor Cuomo at the executive mansion. This was so secretive many of the attendees for advocacy day did not know about it.

The results:

  • Last year’s budget included $15 million for STEM education and this year the amount doubled to $30 million.
  • Last year the Comprehensive Attendance Policy (CAP) was budgeted for $74.784 million. This year’s budget includes an increase of almost $3 million, putting the total at $77.4 million.
  • Last year the state budget included $111.6 million for Mandated Services Reimbursement (MSR). This year the increase was $4 million, putting the total funding at $115.6 million.
  • Finally, the TEACH NYS advocacy day proved successful by obtaining an additional $25 million to protect nonpublic schools, daycare centers and cultural museums at risk of hate crimes.

Of course, Litwak wasn’t going to take full credit for this success. He also showed his appreciation to collaborative groups. “We thank our partners in advocacy, including Agudath Israel of America, the New York State Catholic Conference and the UJA Federation of New York for working with us on behalf of all of New York State’s nonpublic schools,” he said in a prepared statement.

For Agudath Israel of America the mission was a bit different. More than 50 lay leaders, constituents, and activists visited with administration officials and lawmakers in early March to state their case. One of the policy matters of concern for the ultra-Orthodox is end-of-life issues.

“The sanctity of human life is a classic Jewish ideal and a bill that would legalize physician-assisted suicide must be defeated,” said Rabbi Shmuel Lefkowitz, president of Agudah’s Chayim Aruchim division. “Many doctors steer patients to palliative care without disclosing other treatment plans. Doctors need to offer options to patients and their families.”

Agudah’s top legislative priority for this session involves yeshivah and Bais Yaakovs and maintaining the integrity of their schools against excessive governmental oversight and interference.

“The Agudah is against the state Education Department’s new Substantial Equivalency Guidelines. The process by which these guidelines came about was unacceptable, ignoring community input and established legislative norms,” said Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudah.

“The guidelines themselves threaten our thriving mosdos, and are both draconian and illogical. The sense of outrage that permeates the entire nonpublic school community about the guidelines is great and changes need to be made.”

Special needs students struggle with many unique challenges and are of particular concern for Agudath Israel.

“A new obstacle these students face is obtaining school transportation within 50 miles from their home as required by law, which is being denied by some school districts,” said Lefkowitz. “In all these issues, the Agudah urged legislators and staffers to provide the necessary funding to maintain the service levels our children need.”

Even though this has a fiscal impact, this item was not included in the budget. It is expected to be hashed out and finalized before the end of session in June.

Some other secular tidbits from the budget include a pay raise for the governor and lieutenant governor. Cuomo’s salary will see a boost from $200,000 to $225,000 in 2020 and $250,000 in 2021, which would make him the highest-paid governor in the nation. Lt. Governor Kathy Hochul’s pay will jump from $190,000 to $220,000 in 2021.

State lawmakers’ salaries will soar from $79,500 to $130,000 over the next three years. If this budget was not passed on time state lawmakers $10,000 pay boost this year would have been impacted so you could say there were 10,000 reasons to get this budget finalized on time.

Congestion pricing was approved as part of the budget. This is a tax on drivers entering Manhattan below 60th street and spans the width of the island from the East River to the Hudson River. If you are just passing through on the FDR Drive or the West Side Highway you won’t be charged. The expected fee for the privilege to drive in Manhattan is expected to be $10 a day, although the price has not been fixed yet. There is talk about putting cashless tolls on the Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridges. Stay tuned for this one.

Legalizing and of course, taxing, recreational marijuana was not approved as part of the budget but is expected to be taken up later in the session.

There’s more to write about the budget but these are the broad highlights from this year’s budget. The fiscal year began on Monday, April 1.

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