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Budget talks stuck on SUNY autonomy

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A second day of a special legislative session in Albany produced nothing, and lawmakers are heading home. As Karen DeWitt reports, differences over a bill to give public universities more financial autonomy continues to hold up final passage of the budget.

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Karen DeWitt
NYS Capitol Correspondent
The gridlock in the State Senate over the budget continued during two days of special sessions called by Governor Paterson. A stalemate remains over legislation to give public colleges and universities more financial autonomy, including the right to set their own tuition, and to charge more at universities offering graduate programs.

Some Senators refuse to pass the final bill of the state budget, the revenue bill, until the SUNY-CUNY package is approved. But an equal number of Senators say they won't vote for the final budget bill unless the SUNY and CUNY plan is taken off the table. "We've got a stand off," said Senator Ruth Hassell-Thompson, a Democrat from the Bronx.


 Senator Hassell-Thompson suggests that the bill could be broken down into three separate pieces and divorced from the budget talks. She says that way lawmakers who object to certain portions, like different tuition for different campuses, won't feel like they have a "gun to our heads."

Hassell-Thompson, one of a dozen African-American Senators and Assembly members called by Governor Paterson to a special meeting with SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher, said she continues to have concerns about "the ability of children of color to be educated in this state."

Senator Kevin Parker stormed out of the meeting early, saying he did not like Zimpher's tone. "Coming in and berating legislators and calling them names is not the way to do it," said Parker. Others at the meeting disputed that assessment, saying Zimpher was "gracious" but "frank."

Assemblymen Michael Benjamin, also from the Bronx, is a supporter of the SUNY-CUNY package. He says those who are opposed to it are stuck in old disagreements that are no longer relevant. "Members are still fighting the fights from the 1970's," said Benjamin. "For free tuition and those sort of things."

Benjamin says the newest version of the bill ensures that access and retention of poorer and minority students will be maintained and that the tuition assistance program would not be reduced. He says the legislature will have more power over any new public-private partnerships initiated by SUNY.

SUNY Chancellor Zimpher says she thought the more than two hour meeting went well, and even though no minds were changed, she believes it bodes well for the legislation that the governor has made it such a high priority. "We're in play," Zimpher said. "And that's a really good thing."

Zimpher is unperturbed that the SUNY-CUNY bill is holding up the state budget. She says part of the plan needs to be tied up with the budget because SUNY has seen a 30% reduction in its operating budget over the past three years and now needs to generate some revenue through higher tuition. "This is the most severe cut I've seen any institution take over that short a period of time," said Zimpher.

Until the budget is completely finished, state lawmakers won't be paid. But those at the meeting say this issue is more important than receiving their pay checks. Legislative leaders continued to meet behind closed doors with Governor Paterson and say they hope to have an agreement on the SUNY-CUNY plan, and something to vote on, by next week.

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