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Just in case New York State needed another topic to fuel political controversy, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has stoked the fire with his new proposal to fund college education for prison inmates.

Western New York legislators and its political leadership are all weighing in this week on Cuomo’s idea to offer associate’s and bachelor’s degrees through college classes conducted behind bars and funded by the state budget.

While Republicans are lambasting the idea as Cuomo heads toward a re-election campaign this year, the spotlight is shining on key Democrats such as Assemblymen Robin L. Schimminger of Kenmore and Michael P. Kearns of Buffalo, as well as Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy of Buffalo. All three either enthusiastically seek backing from the Conservative Party or represent diverse districts with diverse opinions.

And there is no question where the Conservatives stand. Erie County Chairman Ralph C. Lorigo called the Cuomo proposal “incredible” and “shocking,” adding the governor has suddenly provided another key test for those seeking his party’s nod.

“I very much doubt anyone on my executive board will look kindly on someone who feels our taxpayer money should be spent in this direction,” he said.

Schimminger and Kearns now are the only two Western New York Democrats with Conservative backing, while Kennedy no longer seeks the nod but did previously while in the County Legislature. Kearns and Kennedy did not return phone calls.

Schimminger said he remains skeptical of the idea.

“With so many other fiscal pressures on the state, I certainly don’t think we can afford to initiate such a new program,” he said.

But support is already developing for the proposal, based on the governor’s idea that prisoners who earn a college degree are less likely to end up behind bars again – ultimately decreasing the number of inmates in New York prisons.

“Giving men and women in prison the opportunity to earn a college degree costs our state less and benefits our society more,” Cuomo said a few days ago while introducing the idea before the New York State Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus. “Someone who leaves prison with a college degree has a real shot at a second lease on life because their education gives them the opportunity to get a job and avoid falling back into a cycle of crime.”

Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo, said she likes the “concept” but wonders if the state can afford the program in this year’s budget.

“In the long term, we would end up having taxpayers paying into the system rather than being a drain on it,” she said.

Still, she said any effort to secure her support would need safeguards such as requirements for prisoners sentenced to short terms for non-violent offenses, a high school degree and the potential to be a good citizen upon release.

The governor argues that the state spends $60,000 per year on every prisoner in the system, but 40 percent who are released return to jail. He maintains that the limited program currently administered by Bard College since 1999 results in a recidivism rate of only 4 percent at a cost of only $5,000 per prisoner.

Cuomo also is citing a new study by the RAND Corp. – a nonpartisan think tank – that determined such programs offer real results and a far lower chance of returning to prison.

“We found a notable effect across all levels of education, from adult basic education and GED programs to postsecondary and vocational education programs,” the report said. “Further, our cost analysis suggests that correctional education programs can be cost-effective.”

Schimminger, however, called such comparisons “inherently flawed.”

“There is a self-selection involved here,” he said. “I believe inmates focused on improving themselves are the ones who enroll in these programs.”

Republicans, meanwhile, are lambasting an idea they say should take a back seat to far more pressing problems facing New York. Already, the idea is commanding a role in the race for governor as Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino – a leading candidate for the GOP nomination – blasted it on Wednesday.

“I’ve been putting what I can into a [college fund] every month for my three young children,” Astorino said. “But under Gov. Cuomo, all they’ll need to do is commit a felony to get a free college degree. With harebrained ideas like this, it’s no wonder New York is on a losing track.”

Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy issued similar thoughts.

“This proposal is an insult to law-abiding New Yorkers who struggle to pay tuition and take out enormous student loans in order to finance their college education,” he said, calling it “all the more reason that New York State needs to be under new management next January.”

Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane, said he is “incensed” at the proposal.

“The whole notion of rewarding bad behavior is completely backwards. It should be ‘do the crime, do the time,’ not ‘do the crime, earn a degree,’ ” he said. “It is simply beyond belief to give criminals a competitive edge in the job market over law-abiding New Yorkers who forgo college because of the high cost.”

Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, also weighed in, calling it an “insult to law-abiding citizens.”

“This plan is just the latest sign that for a state that is the highest taxed and ranks among the worst in job creation, Albany has its priorities all screwed up,” he said.

Even Republican Sen. Mark J. Grisanti of Buffalo, a frequent Cuomo ally, said he could not sign onto the proposal.

“I support rehabilitation and reduced recidivism, but not on the taxpayer’s dime when so many individuals and families in New York are struggling to meet the ever-rising costs of higher education,” he said.

email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com