The state’s largest teachers union filed a lawsuit on Wednesday against Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state Division of Budget over more than $5 billion in state spending that’s expected to be withheld from school districts as the state grapples with an unprecedented budget crisis.
New York State United Teachers claimed in the lawsuit that a law approved earlier this year that would allow those cuts is unconstitutional and shouldn’t be enforced.
Those withholdings are the result of the state’s projected $14 billion budget deficit, which Cuomo has asked Congress to fill. Without help from the federal government, New York is expecting a $30 billion shortfall over the next two years because of the coronavirus.
But Andy Pallotta, president of NYSUT, said the state’s schools shouldn’t have to bear the cost of the deficit while Cuomo waits for Congress to act.
“With the loss of state funding driving cuts at the local level in districts around the state, we can’t just keep waiting for action at the federal level to fund our schools,” Pallotta said. “At this point, a lawsuit unfortunately is the necessary next step to compel our leaders to do what’s right: Fund our future and stop these cuts.”
Cuomo has warned for months that cuts could be coming to school districts if Congress doesn’t provide billions of dollars of aid to the state. Some districts, in recent weeks, have laid off hundreds of employees in anticipation of those cuts.
It’s an unusual situation. During any other year, school districts wouldn’t have to worry about cuts in state spending at the start of the school year. That’s usually decided in March as part of the state budget.
Once the state budget is approved, there’s usually not a lot of wiggle room on how much the state can direct, or withhold, from school districts.
But this year, the state Legislature gave Cuomo special authority to cut state spending at several points throughout the year in response to the deficit. The idea was that, if New York was able to get money from somewhere else, those cuts could be avoided.
That hasn’t happened. Congress hasn’t come to a deal on relief for states dealing with the financial fallout from the coronavirus, and New York hasn’t found another way to raise revenue.
In other words: The state is out of money, except for a few discretionary funds, and now Cuomo and the state Division of Budget are looking for ways to reduce spending. Because education makes up a large share of the state budget, it wasn’t unexpected for schools to be a target.
But NYSUT, in its lawsuit filed Wednesday, said the state’s proposed cuts to school districts are unconstitutional. More specifically, the teachers union claimed that the authority given to Cuomo by the Legislature to cut spending throughout the year doesn’t pass constitutional muster.
That’s because, the lawsuit claimed, the budgetary process is within the discretion of the state Legislature, and therefore can’t be delegated solely to Cuomo’s office.
“The creation of the Executive Branch’s Reduction Authority violated the separation of powers provided for in the State Constitution’s budgetary process and was an unconstitutional delegation of the Legislature’s constitutional oversight and policy making powers,” the suit said.
NYSUT is seeking, through the lawsuit, to have the state’s withholdings from school districts reversed, and to bar Cuomo’s office from handing down any future cuts.
The state Legislature has the power to come back to Albany and reverse those withholdings without judicial intervention, but hasn’t announced any plans to reconvene at this point.
Freeman Klopott, a spokesperson for the state Division of Budget, called the lawsuit from NYSUT "frivolous" in a statement, and said the union was misrepresenting the situation.
"This frivolous, uninformed lawsuit is just wrong and NYSUT should be embarrassed as the facts are clear: There has been no 20% cut to school aid even as we’ve waited six months for the Federal government to deliver the resources the State needs to offset a $62 billion, four-year revenue loss," Klopott said.
"We will work with our partners in government to address any remaining gaps in federal assistance and, in the absence of Federal funding, any future actions will take school district need into consideration -- NYSUT should stop with the nonsense and lies, and focus on Washington and the Federal funding we need, not distract attention."
Dan Clark is host and producer of New York Now.