The Erie County Legislature added its voice Thursday to the uproar over Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s plan to provide taxpayer-funded college educations for inmates sentenced to state prisons.
A resolution sponsored by the Republican-aligned majority expressing opposition to Cuomo’s plan was approved 7-3 by the Legislature, with Legislator Thomas A. Loughran of Amherst the only Democrat voting with the majority.
Minority Leader Betty Jean Grant and Legislator Patrick B. Burke— both Buffalo Democrats— each introduced their own resolutions that did not muster enough support for a vote. While they and another Buffalo Democrat, Legislator Barbara Miller-Williams, all sided with the majority in questioning the wisdom of providing state prisoners with free, taxpayer-funded college, they also lamented that the resolution drafted by the majority offered no alternatives, merely opposition.
“I am opposed, myself, to giving free tuition to inmates,” said Grant.
“Perhaps, they could provide an opportunity for those inmates to take out a student loan, like the rest of us, finish college, get a job and repay the money,” she added.
Miller-Williams said educational opportunities should be available for those who are incarcerated. “To simply say no, I don’t think is the message this body needs to be sending,” she added.
Burke questioned why the Legislature needed to act so quickly on a resolution that is not legally binding on the governor, anyway.
“I don’t understand why this was being pushed through for a vote. It offers no solutions at all. The only reasons I can understand are for cheap press or it’s a political stunt,” said Burke, who called on Cuomo to increase state funding for higher education.
Legislator Lynne M. Dixon, an Independence Party member from Hamburg, said the intent of the legislation was to object to the governor’s plan.
“So, this just lets the governor and lets our state lawmakers know how we feel about his proposal,” Dixon said.
Cuomo’s proposal, which has garnered some support, is predicated on the idea that prisoners who earn a college degree are less likely to return to prison which, ultimately, leads to a decrease in the number of inmates in New York prisons.
The governor has argued that the state spends $60,000 per year on every prisoner in the system, but 40 percent who are released return to jail. He also noted that a limited program currently administered by Bard College since 1999 has resulted in a recidivism rate of only 4 percent at a cost of only $5,000 per prisoner, and he wants to expand that idea.
Meanwhile, the majority and minority caucuses in the County Legislature also clashed on two other resolutions directed at the state. The majority, again with support from Loughran, approved a resolution denying the state the use of the Erie County Seal on any document enforcing the controversial Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act of 2013.
The majority also approved a resolution calling for reforms to the state’s nearly 130-year-old Scaffold Law that imposes absolute liability on construction contractors for elevation-related injuries suffered by their employees. Republicans said the law stifles economic development across the state, while Burke said the proposed reforms are anti-labor.