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Nov 17, 2008 12:42 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Long Island lawmakers concerned about new Senate majority

Nov 17, 2008 12:42 PM

Come January, for the first time since 1965, the Democratic Party will hold the majority in the New York State Senate, and that has some local Republican politicians warning that it will mean a loss of state aid to Long Island schools and hospitals.

Shortly after the elections on November 4, 1st District Senator Kenneth P. LaValle released a statement from his Selden office lamenting the loss of his chairmanship of the Senate Higher Education Committee under the new majority and foreboding what the power shift will mean for state colleges on Long Island. Brian Foley, the 3rd District senator-elect and current Brookhaven Town supervisor, scoffed at the suggestion that the new majority will be detrimental for Long Island.

“I have always been a strong advocate of our State University of New York (SUNY) system and have worked long and hard at securing state dollars to provide students, statewide, with a quality and respected education,” Mr. LaValle stated in his post-election release. “Unfortunately, the Democratic control of the Senate will shift the focus on higher education to the city university system, much to the detriment of SUNY.”

Earlier this month, Mr. LaValle, who represents the five East End towns and the eastern half of Brookhaven Town, elaborated on his statement and his expectations.

During budget negotiations, the Democrats pushed for a historic change in the percentage of funds City University, or CUNY, schools get for their operating budgets and capital construction, Mr. LaValle said. Meanwhile, Stony Brook Southampton, a SUNY school in its second year of existence on a former Long Island University Campus, is fledgling and needs state support, he said.

“As chairman, I was able to get the money to begin Southampton,” Mr. LaValle said. “There is no incentive for a senator from Queens who would chair the Higher Education Committee to continue the kind of support we need to allow that to grow.”

Martin Schoonen, the dean of Stony Brook Southampton, said the college is now at a disadvantage because it will no longer have direct access to the chairman of the Higher Education Committee as it has in Mr. LaValle.

“Changes in leadership always bring uncertainty,” said Mr. Schoonen said. “I don’t know exactly how this is going to play out.”

The dean said Stony Brook Southampton is almost completely dependent on state funds to operate the campus, and cuts to its budget will mean fewer classes and slower growth.

He credited Mr. LaValle with getting the school off the ground and running in the first place. “I think it’s safe to say without his involvement, Stony Brook Southampton would not exist today.”

Mr. LaValle is also concerned about Long Island school districts. He said Governor David Paterson’s requests for mid-year cuts in school aid are disproportionate, favoring New York City public schools over suburban and rural schools, and that Mr. Paterson is recommending cutting aid and support to community colleges.

“Unless the community colleges make enormous cuts, they would have to increase tuition,” Mr. LaValle said.

The senator said he is also concerned about what the new majority will mean for Suffolk County’s agricultural industry and its medical systems. Any state cuts to the three East End hospitals’ Medicaid reimbursements would compromise the quality of patient care on Eastern Long Island, he said.

Though the Democrats will hold a majority of Senate seats in the next term, Mr. LaValle said there is still a chance the new Senate will re-elect Republican Senator Dean Skelos to be the majority leader over Democrat Malcolm Smith, the current minority leader.

“You never know,” Mr. LaValle said.

State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., who represents the South Fork in the Assembly, agreed with many of Mr. LaValle’s points.

“The State Senate elections, to me, were less about Democrats and Republicans and more about geography, and I don’t think that there’s any doubt that the new Senate majority is going to be focused on more urban areas,” Mr. Thiele said.

It will be incumbent on the two new Long Island Democrats in the Senate, Mr. Foley and Craig Johnson, to be bipartisan in order to protect the island’s interests, he said. Former Governor Eliot Spitzer tried to cut funding for Long Island on a regular basis, but the legislature stopped him, Mr. Thiele said.

Now that the State Assembly speaker and, likely, the State Senate majority leader will both be from New York City, state resources will shift from Long Island to New York City, Mr. Thiele predicted. “Those from New York City tend to protect their home base at the expense of others.”

The state faces a difficult budget situation, and the Long Island representatives in Albany need to make sure the island does not assume a disproportionate amount of the pain, Mr. Thiele said. “We don’t have any room for partisan bickering among the members of the Long Island delegation.”

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The Long Island Republicans should be afraid, be very afraid. Their schools have been overfunded with with state aid the past five years. The schools have the reputation for being administrative top heavy in personell and salaries. Thats where the local taxpayers should insist their school boards make the cuts, not in the classroom.
By Walt (292), Southampton on Nov 26, 08 9:25 AM