The youngest member of the New York Legislature got a shout-out from the Assembly floor during the opening session of 2017 on Wednesday, when Speaker Carl Heastie brought up Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s new proposal to waive tuition at SUNY and CUNY schools for qualifying students and credited his own members, including Woodbury’s James Skoufis, with beating the governor to it.
“For those of you that have been here for some time, you know that the idea of college affordability started right here in this house,” Heastie said. “So, again, I want to thank the chair of our Higher Education Committee, Deborah Glick, Assembly member James Skoufis and all the members for working to make college affordable for all New Yorkers.”
Cuomo, with Bernie Sanders at his side, had announced a day earlier a proposal to offer free tuition at New York’s public 2-year and 4-year colleges to students whose families earn less than $125,000 a year, an income threshold that would be phased in over three years. He estimated the program would cost the state around $163 million a year, a projection that has struck even supporters like Skoufis and Glick as curiously low. The proposal is likely to be detailed in Cuomo’s budget proposal this month and debated in the weeks ahead.
Skoufis has been advocating free tuition at public colleges under certain conditions since 2014, when he introduced a bill to that effect in his second year in Albany. The terms have evolved, but a constant element is that beneficiaries must agree to live and work in New York for at least five years after graduation. In its most recent form, the bill also would require students to perform 25 hours of community service each year.
In a “Capital Tonight” TV interview Wednesday night, Skoufis, who is now 29, said he modeled his proposal after one in red-state Tennessee and suggested it would reap economic benefits that justify its cost – by eliminating the stifling economic effect that student-loan debt has on college graduates. He also pointed out that most jobs in today’s world require a college degree and asked, “Why wouldn’t treat it the same way in terms of accessibility and affordabilty as we do K-12?”
Earlier in the day, the third-term Democrat had quarreled on Twitter about Cuomo’s proposal with a fellow Orange County Assembly member, Karl Brabenec. That came after the Deerpark Republican scorned free tuition as “nanny-state socialism” and rattled off GOP alternatives that he said Democrats had rejected, like increased state tuition aid and better work-study programs: Here’s part of Brabenec’s statement:
“Gov. Cuomo’s proposal to make SUNY tuition free for families who earn below $125,000 is misguided, irresponsible and the kind of nanny-state socialism that perpetuates New York’s image as one of the most expensive states in the nation in which to live and operate a business. The proposal’s cost, an estimated $163 million per year, is a financial burden we cannot place on future generations.
Another Republican lawmaker from Orange County also had little enthusiasm for Cuomo’s initial concept. State Sen. John Bonacic of Mount Hope said in a video-recorded interview that the governor seemed to be “polishing his national resume” with the idea, and suggested that waiving tuition would give students a lackadaisical attitude toward their education.
“I don’t like that a college student doesn’t have skin in the game,” Bonacic said.