Swing Away

Posted by & filed under CGR Staff.

In baseball parlance it’s known as the “meatball”… the “cream puff”… the “fat pitch”.

It’s the ball thrown by the pitcher with no real speed, no deception. It’s a batter’s dream – the very hittable pitch.

I think of the “meatball” when I think about the legal ruling in New York that compels the state to cough up billions of dollars for equitable education in New York City.

This legal decision is a “cream puff” of an issue during this governor’s race. The courts have indirectly served up this “fat pitch” for you… the voter. The public and the press ought to bat this ball right at the gubernatorial candidates and make them field it, time and time again.

There is a long windup for this particular pitch (Click here for a full chronology). The legal ruling began as a lawsuit by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (or CFE), a non-profit organization that claimed the state was denying a “sound basic education” to the children of New York City. It was filed by the CFE in 1993 when a guy named Mario was about to be replaced as governor by the current occupant, George Pataki.

It took eight years for a judge to rule in favor of CFE. It took another two years for the case to make it to the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, which affirmed the ruling. The court gave the state another year to submit a plan for complying. When state lawmakers and Gov. Pataki (now more than a decade as governor) failed to make that deadline, the court appointed a group to come up with a plan.

It meant billions of dollars. More than $15 billion in additional state money for school operating aid to New York City and to improve school buildings.

This past March, state lawmakers approved a budget that includes roughly $9 billion in borrowed financing for New York City schools. But the just approved budget still lacks the roughly $4 to $5.5 billion for operating aid to New York City.

So here we sit, waiting for the state to act. And, of course, the ramifications go far beyond New York City. There are needy school districts across the state (including the Rochester City Schools) that would also be entitled under this ruling for extra aid. That demand seems implied.

So let me get back to the “meatball” that is this CFE case … why it means so much to voters who are trying to figure out who to cast a vote for this November.

With Pataki fading out of the picture, there are three men who want a crack at running things in the governor’s mansion. How can we tell the difference between Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi and the former Assembly Minority Leader John Faso? We have their party affiliations, of course (Spitzer and Suozzi, the Democrats and Faso the Republican). But that doesn’t really help.

We can hear their general sales pitches. But those either talk about having a level of executive experience or being fiscally prudent or having passion.

What these guys need is a test case… an issue that unearths their deepest held political beliefs.

I submit that the CFE case is it. Already the three men have shown different attitudes toward the CFE case.

Faso has promised to defy the court order… ignore it. Spitzer has straddled a tricky line on this issue. As attorney general, he was the state’s legal counsel as it fought against the CFE lawsuit. But as a candidate, Spitzer has shown a willingness to support funding schools to comply with the CFE ruling.

Suozzi said that he would find deep cuts in the state budget (through cutting the state workforce, Medicaid fraud proposals and reforms of the state’s pension rules) to come up with enough money to comply with CFE.

But we could get them to go further. And, in so doing, we could learn more about their philosophy of governing and what they believe is the role of state government in our lives.

Some argue that the courts have overstepped their role in this case. Faso has taken this position.

With three probably appointees coming up on the seven-judge Court of Appeals, how would this approach by the state’s highest court define what Faso would want in future appellate judges. Where do Spitzer and Suozzi stand on the court’s intervention in this case?

How do they feel about the equity in state aid for schools? Do they believe the current state aid formula is fair and would they weight it more toward needy districts?

And, if they believe in fulfilling the CFE dictates, do they think cuts will get them the extra $4 to $5.5 billion? If not, would they increase taxes to get the money? Or would they take from the rich district and give to the poorer ones?

This gets at some basic truths about the role of government.

That’s why the press and the public should get in the batter’s box and swing away when it comes to CFE.