Twenty-six Republican state lawmakers backed New York Governor George Pataki’s (R) veto of $1 billion of education spending last year, and this year they paid for their support by losing the backing of New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), the state’s largest teacher union.
The union had endorsed all 26 of the lawmakers in 2002 but withdrew its endorsement this year. Only two of the lawmakers, however, lost their reelection bid on November 2.
Pataki had vetoed 119 budget items in 2003, and every one of the vetoes was overridden. Government employees were strong supporters of the overrides, said Edward Scharfenberger, chairman of the Warwick Taxpayers Association, a taxpayer rights advocacy group in Warwick, New York.
“Government workers have a lot of clout here,” he said, “the teachers especially. There are 721 school districts in New York. They were out to knock all these people out of the Assembly.”
The union represents more than 500,000 of the state’s public school teachers. In August, union officials announced they would drop their endorsement of the lawmakers who supported Pataki’s veto.
“NYSUT supports candidates who support the issues our members care about,” NYSUT President Thomas Y. Hobart, Jr. said in a statement on August 5. “In NYSUT’s history, there has perhaps been no bigger vote than last year’s override of the governor’s veto of increased funding for public education. These Assembly Republicans made a choice to put their own political interests ahead of New York’s children. They chose to cut education and raise local property taxes. They have not earned our endorsement.”
Lauded As Courageous
Scharfenberger views the actions of the 26 Republicans much differently. He said they “courageously” put the interests of New York’s taxpayers ahead of their own political interests.
“It took no small amount of courage for the 26 Republican members of the Assembly to vote against the override of the governor’s veto of drastic increases in spending for public education,” Scharfenberger said.
In an October 13 letter to Assembly Minority Leader Charles Nesbitt (R-Albion), who was among those who supported Pataki’s veto and lost the teacher union endorsement, Scharfenberger said, “it should come as no surprise” that the teacher union called for the defeat of every Assembly member who supported the veto.
“After all, the public education system, as we now know it, is nothing less than an adjunct of the Democrat Party, and a cash cow for the teacher unionists who run the schools and exploit the children for their own benefit,” Scharfenberger said.
Despite the union’s opposition, Nesbitt won reelection.
Battle Brewing Over Vouchers
Scharfenberger sees another battle brewing between public school teachers and fed-up taxpayers in New York. In October, the state’s seven Roman Catholic bishops announced they were no longer backing a proposal for a voucher program to help parents pay for tuition at private and parochial schools. Instead, the bishops threw their support to the Freedom of Education Act, versions of which are pending in state Senate and Assembly committees.
The Freedom of Education Act would provide tax credits to parents who send their children to private or parochial schools. Scharfenberger said the Warwick Taxpayers Association prefers tax credits over vouchers because a tax credit means a person simply deducts the cost of tuition from his tax bill. A voucher is a tuition reimbursement that comes from the government, funded by taxes that already have been collected.
“In the case of vouchers, payments come from a government entity, reinforcing the idea of collective responsibility,” Scharfenberger said. “In the case of tax credits, the taxpayer keeps the money in the first place, reinforcing the idea of personal responsibility, which I favor.”
Scharfenberger said the teacher union opposes both vouchers and tax credits, because such programs weaken the power of unions and the public school establishment.
“By increasing the number of tuition-supported students, we decrease the number of students in government schools and reduce the need for public school teachers and union dues,” Scharfenberger said. “When you reduce dues and the number of teachers, you lessen the power of teacher unions.”
Steve Stanek ([email protected]) is managing editor of Budget & Tax News.