News that longtime New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver had been indicted by the U.S Attorney’s office for allegedly taking $4 million in kickbacks shook the ground in New York State’s political world on January 22.
Silver, who’d held the speaker position for 21 years has been considered one of the most powerful men in the state, literally making or breaking legislation that impacts the day to day lives of New Yorkers including crucial funding decisions that affect BMCC/CUNY.
Two BMCC political science professors joined a BMCC history professor for a brief discussion to explain how and why it’s important that students and the entire BMCC community keeps an eye on what goes on in Albany.
Further, they offered pointers on how students might have their voices heard by state leaders coupled and offered advice on how a student might pursue a career in public service and/or politics.
Why it’s important to watch Albany
Political Science Professor Melissa Brown pointed out that most people’s instinct is to first follow the news from Washington at the federal level, primarily the President, his administration, Congress and the Supreme Court.
But she said the state exerts its own rules, taxes and spending that directly impact local issues such as education.
For example, she pointed out that at least one quarter of CUNY’s community college funding comes from the state. And, it’s the state that sets many of the rules and procedures schools such as BMCC must follow.
“Besides education, so many aspects of daily life are governed at the state level, car registration, criminal justice issues, questions about access to abortion, minimum wage, marriage and rules surrounding adoption, transit, the rules vary from state to state,” she said.
And, the City of New York often has to seek Albany’s permission or get state funding in order to do certain things.
For example, in 2008, Speaker Sheldon Silver and the Democratic Committee effectively blocked then Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed congestion pricing plan from going before the assembly for a vote.
If the State had approved the idea, the City could have charged fees at certain times of day on cars coming into Manhattan. The revenue it raised would have been re-directed to the cash starved MTA, which recently announced a new fare increase.
Indictment of Silver could impact higher ed
History Professor Jacob Kramer said the indictment of Silver is major. He said the case itself will take time to play out and whatever the outcome, it will have significant consequences.
Kramer pointed out that Silver had been an advocate for CUNY seeking increased funding for the CUNY system and strongly resisting cuts over the years.
“If Silver is indeed compromised, it does raise questions about CUNY’s future, and this is something students should be aware of,” said Kramer.
Assemblyman Carl Heastie has since replaced Silver. Heastie is the first African American Assembly speaker in New York State history.
And, as Professor Brown notes, he’s from Assembly District 83 in the Bronx.
“With the new Speaker being from the Bronx, this is going to be a big advantage to New York City as opposed to him being someone from a different part of the state, who might not pay so much attention to NYC needs or priorities,” said Brown.
How students can get involved in state politics
Political science professor Geoffrey Kurtz stressed that there’s always a lot at stake when it comes to the state government, but there are two times in particular when students can not only pay attention more closely, but have their voices heard.
Every even number year is an election year, when state representatives are elected.
But, even more relevant to students is the budget season each spring in Albany. Usually, the big decisions on how and where the state spends its money take place in a period from late February sometimes on into the early summer.
“This year, people expect a lot of the budget discussion to happen in February and March, a bit earlier than some years, when it’s carried over into the summer,” said
Will funding to CUNY keep up with CUNY needs?
“We have extraordinarily high enrollment both at the four year and community colleges,” he said.
But, he said despite the demand, funding has languished.
“This is why we don’t have quite as small class size that we need,” he said.
He said CUNY schools sometimes don’t have enough books in the library, space in the computer and science labs or adequate financial aid for students. Also, he said some argue that funding relates to why an institution doesn’t have enough full-time professors.
Get on the lobby bus to Albany
Every spring, student organizations such as the Student Government Association, and New York Public Interest Research Group along with faculty groups travel to Albany to lobby state legislators.
Students who have concerns surrounding the CUNY Budget and the influence of state decisions on CUNY might want to consider joining a trip like that, said Kurtz.
“You can get on a bus to Albany with your fellow students, sit down at a meeting with a state assembly member or senator and say to them this is what my CUNY education means to you,” said Kurtz.
And what if a student decides he or she wants to pursue a career in politics, public service or advocacy work?
“Students have a number of options to consider beyond the classroom such as working for an elected official, becoming an expert on some particular issue, or maybe just getting involved with an organization where you find and work with people that care about the same things you do,” he said adding, “that’s also one of the best ways to learn about politics.”