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Governor gets high marks on first State of the State, but more needs to be done for communities of color

STATE SENATOR RUTH HASSELL-THOMPSON | 4/12/2011, 4:46 p.m.

Chairwoman, New York State Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus

Low-income and middle-income New Yorkers are hurting from the combined effects of high property taxes; unemployment and underemployment; health care premium increases; and cuts to public services. While it is within the responsibilities of the New York State Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus ("the Caucus") to protect services and resources for the most vulnerable New Yorkers, we understand full well the immediacy of the fiscal challenges facing our state. We are committed to partnering with Gov. Andrew Cuomo to balance a budget that is fair going forward.

There are significant challenges facing our state, chief among them a $10 billion budget deficit. Like virtually all other states in the nation, New York continues to face its greatest revenue shortfall since the Great Depression of the 1930s. In the weeks to come, we hope for fruitful dialogue with the governor to ensure that the burden of closing the budget gap is not falling saliently on the shoulders of indigent communities and communities of color.

We must also be mindful of the commitment to our children pledged under the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE). Severe state cuts to education funding would leave localities in the unenviable position of submitting double-digit property tax increases. Additionally, further cuts to education could widen the achievement gap between high-needs school districts and more affluent school districts. We were elated to hear Gov. Cuomo suggest he is supportive of a complete transformation of our education system. In an age of the iPad, YouTube and Facebook, a chalkboard and textbook may no longer be adequate. We must prepare our children to meet the challenges of an increasingly competitive and technologically sophisticated global market.

There is uncertainty on the implementation process of the governor's proposed incentive-based approach, and we look forward to hearing more, but for now, we agree with the governor: Carrots and sticks may both be necessary. Reform will not be easy, and it is our hope that the governor brings all interested parties together to bring forth the reforms our public schools so desperately need. We have to take special care of our high-needs school districts to ensure that the proposed property tax relief plan, in culmination with a new incentive-based approach, is not adversely affecting our young people in such districts.

The 49 members of the Caucus, the most in its history, are prepared to partner with the governor to ameliorate the myriad of challenges facing our state and to restore full confidence in state government. Though often obscured by distraction, we have made significant strides in the past two years with Caucus members prime-sponsoring progressive legislation, such as the MWBE 2010 Business Diversification Act, the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, Race to the Top education reform, the repeal of the Rockefeller Drug Laws, matrimonial law reform and restoration of the Interest on Lawyer Account (IOLA) fund.

Through the IOLA fund, we recognize the need to give all New Yorkers equal access to our justice system. Imagine how many people in this troubled economy cannot afford adequate defense to stop foreclosure actions, fight for unemployment benefits, fight against housing evictions, debt collections, etc. This Legislature, partnering with the Executive, must continue to include the IOLA fund and other key initiatives affecting communities of color in the next budget.