Sunday, March 21, 2010

Are You There, Albany? It's Me, the Constructivist; or, An Outline of a Political Settlement on the Empowerment Act

All right, enough with the despair over the prospects of passing the Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act (PHEE&IA). Even if it's quickly getting to the point where serious cooperation between the leaders of organizations representing almost the full range of SUNY constituencies can make little if any impact on the legislative process, there's still a lot that can happen as the budget bill is finalized. If the rumors I'm hearing are true that it's going to be rushed through, here are the outlines of a compromise that the infamous "3 men in a room" in Albany can understand, and perhaps sign off on.

It's pretty clear that the PHEE&IA sidelines the state legislature while keeping the Governor firmly in charge of SUNY. After all, the legislature would have to give up control over SUNY's tuition were the bill to become law, but nothing in it changes the fact that SUNY counts as a state agency (and so is subject to unilateral funding cuts from the Governor), or that the Governor appoints the SUNY Board of Trustees, the initiates the budget-setting process for SUNY (via the Division of Budget), and negotiates with the unions representing SUNY employees (via the Governor's Office of Employee Relations). Even when the bill appears to include the state Senate and Assembly, the Governor retains control. For instance, the State University Asset Maximization Review Board it creates is appointed solely by the Governor, with only advice on voting members from the majority leaders of the legislature and on non-voting positions from the minority leaders. (Although at this point there's a chance the bill will be amended to revise the existing State Asset Maximization Review Board, unless the draft of the SUNY Comprehensive Asset Management Policy that I've seen simply has a typo.) Simply on balance of power grounds within New York's system of separation of powers, then, the state legislature has little reason to support the Governor's proposal.

Herein lie the seeds for a political settlement. If the state legislature is willing to concede that the campuses and the system can do a better job handling tuition policy than it has, what is the Governor willing to concede?

How about his unilateral authority to mandate cuts to the state-operated campuses' budgets? As local institutions, SUNY's community colleges and the City University of New York are not subject to this gubernatorial power, so why should the rest of SUNY? If the PHEE&IA were to redefine the state-operated campuses as public legal entities, such as "public benefit corporations," as the State University Business Officers Association has called for in "The Case for Enhanced SUNY Flexibility" (September 2008), then the Governor would be demonstrating his willingness to give up this control over SUNY budgets and setting an example for the state legislature. Or if the bill redefined his budget-cutting authority over SUNY as subject to legislative approval (within a certain period of time), he would at least allow time for the democratic process to vet his decision-making.

How about his power to appoint SUNY Trustees? If the PHEE&IA were to create a non-partisan panel of state- and nationally-recognized higher education leaders to recommend new appointments to the SUNY BOT, and if they made recommendations to a 7-person board consisting of the Governor and the majority and minority leaders and the chairs of the committees in charge of higher ed in the state Senate and Assembly, which had final authority to approve or reject the panel's recommendations, the governance of SUNY would be insulated from New York's political processes and the power to affect the membership of the ultimate authority in SUNY would be shared.

How about the initiation of the budget-setting process for SUNY? If the PHEE&IA were to create a working group on the SUNY component of the state budget consisting of representatives from DOB, SUNY System Administration, UUP, UFS, and campus presidents and business officers from each of SUNY's sectors, then they could look at historical patterns in the share of state personal income devoted to SUNY, the level of state support for SUNY per capita and per $1000 of personal income, and the share of the state general fund devoted to SUNY, and compare them to regional, national, and international data, and make a better-informed recommendation as to SUNY's funding in a given fiscal year. And if a 7-person board consisting of the Governor and the majority and minority leaders and the chairs of the committees in charge of finance in the state Senate and Assembly had the authority to revise the working group's recommendations and insert them directly into the Governor's budget bill, a consensus on an appropriate level of funding for SUNY could be developed by January of each budget cycle, which would give the committees and members of the state legislature plenty of time to double-check the board's recommendation and consult with their constituencies as they finalize the budget bill.

After making all those concessions, the Governor wouldn't have any reason or need to give up the authority granted him under the Taylor Act to bargain with state employee unions. I don't think anyone in the legislature would fault him for that. With these concessions in place, the "3 men in a room" could figure out what else needs to be improved in the PHEE&IA to make it work better for everyone in SUNY and in New York State. And perhaps be ready to listen to a united advocacy effort from SUNY, UUP, and UFS.

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