Cuomo Denies He Has His Eye on Half a Billion Dollars of CUNY’s State Funding, but All Signs Point to the Contrary

Our governor, after Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son
Our governor, after Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son
Tim Bower

As the Voice goes to press this week, funding for the City University of New York, the third largest public university system in America, remains in jeopardy, held hostage to the most cynical elements of our state politics.

Two weeks ago, the Voice explored Governor Andrew Cuomo's announced intention to reduce the state contribution to CUNY's 2016 budget by nearly half a billion dollars from 2015's $1.6 billion. (That article may have included, if we're being honest, some unflattering assessments of the governor, the size of his soul, and his capacity to believe in anything at all.) In response, Cuomo's director of state operations, Jim Malatras, wrote a letter to the editor calling the piece "so completely inaccurate, hyperbolic, and filled with false statements that it makes New York's tabloids look tame." A couple days later, Cuomo's office published a lengthier statement from Malatras in which he asserted that "the $1.6 billion in aid has not changed and will not change under this budget." Another two days later, Malatras was trotted out at a press conference, where he said: "I want to be clear, because there have been some controversial statements made. The governor's budget fully funds CUNY at $1.6 billion as it always has. And anybody else who suggests otherwise is intentionally trying to be deceptive."

Malatras's desire to be clear is commendable, but his execution is wanting. If Cuomo's budget funds CUNY at $1.6 billion, why does the state budget website list the governor's funding for his CUNY budget at $1.2 billion? Why does page 45 of the governor's executive budget include a $470 million reduction of state spending on CUNY's senior colleges? Why does the governor's budget briefing book explain, in the mealy-mouthed and obfuscatory language of all bureaucratic evil, "General Fund savings in the Executive Budget are expected from [realigning] financial responsibility for City of New York Senior Colleges"?

One answer to these questions might be that while the governor intended to cut state funding for CUNY schools, the blowback has persuaded him to change his mind, at least for this budget cycle. But that's not what Malatras is saying. His astounding claim is that Cuomo has always maintained level state funding for CUNY in this year's budget process. The balls of this statement, flying in the face of heaps of documentary evidence and the past two months we've all just lived through, are stupendous. Cuomo and Malatras are effectively staring New Yorkers right in the face and telling them that Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia. Are you gonna believe Cuomo's spin operation or your own lyin' eyes?

Seeking clarity, the Voice sent Cuomo's office a list of questions last week. Where in the governor's budget could we find support for Malatras's claim of the governor's commitment to $1.6 billion? If the governor identifies cost savings in CUNY's administration, will those savings be reinvested in CUNY or cut from its budget? Does Cuomo still want the city to pay more? Does Cuomo want to merge CUNY and SUNY? On Monday, we received a less-than-clarifying two-sentence statement from deputy press secretary Abbey Fashouer: "The governor's budget fully funds CUNY at $1.6 billion as it always has. Proposed reforms and cost savings must be agreed upon by April 1 — and if the legislature approves this plan, no party should need to pay more."

As of last week, the governor's excruciating clinic on contortion is no longer the craziest shit the state government is throwing at New York City's public university system. Last week the Republican-dominated state senate took the governor's plan to slash state funding for CUNY and ran with it, justifying Cuomo's proposed hatchetry with a rationale of its own: CUNY must be punished with budget cuts, senators claimed, because the City University once described as the Jewish Harvard is anti-Semitic.

The Senate Republicans appear to be taking their inspiration from a report put out by the Zionist Organization of America and amplified by the New York Post. Never mind that the ZOA is a Sheldon Adelson–funded right-wing fringe group whose increasingly hardline agenda has alienated other Jewish organizations and driven its own membership from a quarter of a million at its peak down to an estimated eight hundred today. Never mind that many of ZOA's complaints conflate anti-Semitism with the activities of Palestinian student groups, members of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, and others who oppose certain Israeli policies. Never mind that CUNY promptly hired two high-profile former prosecutors to investigate the allegations of anti-Semitism, and that the Anti-Defamation League praised this response as evidence that "CUNY is taking these allegations seriously." And never mind that the university system Republican senators want to defund serves half a million New Yorkers, many of them Jewish. (CUNY's Brooklyn and Hunter colleges rank among the top public schools by Jewish population, according to Hillel International.)

It may be that Senate Republicans are serious about policing hate speech, but if that's the case, one wonders why they've never discussed cutting the state funding received by Cornell, a private university that as recently as 2014 was listed by the David Horowitz Freedom Center as the second most anti-Semitic campus in America. A jaundiced observer might note that this defunding enthusiasm is occurring in an election year when Republican control of the senate hangs in the balance, with many observers pinning the outcome on the race to fill the seat held by disgraced former senate leader Dean Skelos, in a Long Island district with a large Jewish population. In that light, throwing CUNY to the wolves to paint senate Democrats as hateful anti-Semites for defending public education funding might just be good politics. That isn't Cuomo's fault, of course — unless you consider the fact that Cuomo has consistently refused to work to dislodge Republican control of the senate. (Last election cycle, the Working Families Party famously wrung a commitment from the recalcitrant governor to vigorously campaign for senate Democratic candidates. Cuomo grudgingly promised, then finked out.)

New York's other legislative body, the state assembly, has rejected the cuts to CUNY's state budget endorsed by Cuomo and the senate. But in the corrupt halls of Albany, decisions are still made by three men in a room, and two of those men — Senate Majority Leader John Flannagan and, judging by his own budget if not his confusing public statements, Governor Cuomo — appear bent on carving hundreds of millions of dollars from the state budget for public higher education.

A lot can still happen before the final state budget is approved. It may be that in the horse-trading to come, assembly Democrats will find a way to restore CUNY's funding. But even if that happens, CUNY will just be back where it started: underfunded, facing mounting tuitions, its teachers and other employees without a contract. Cuomo, meanwhile, last week offered yet another framing of his intentions for CUNY: He's going to hire a management consultant, get that consultant to identify "back-office savings" at CUNY, present those savings to the legislature, and fold them into the final CUNY budget. The budget process closes on April 1. Cuomo hasn't even hired the consultant yet. In this iteration of Cuomo's CUNY policy, as in every preceding one, nothing makes any sense. The flapping folds of self-contradictory nonsense hide the glint of the blade, but make no mistake: The knives are out.


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