By Joe Mahoney Staff Writer
The Daily Star
---- — Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to use public dollars to fund college educations for incarcerated felons has ignited strong opposition from the region’s elected officials serving in Albany.
“I think this is a slap in the face to our middle class people who are scrimping, saving and sacrificing in order to pay for the college educations of themselves and their children,” Sen. James Seward, R-Milford, told The Daily Star.
Cuomo contends that equipping inmates at 10 state prisons with college degree programs will reduce the likelihood that they will commit new crimes when they are released into society.
The proposal was not initially mentioned when he released his proposed state budget in January for the fiscal year beginning April 1. The governor announced his support for sending state funding to a new prison education program in remarks he made over the weekend to the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus.
Among those distancing himself from the Democratic leader’s proposal Tuesday was a member of Cuomo’s own party, Assemblyman Bill Magee, D-Nelson.
“When we’re struggling to fund public schools, is this the time to give money to people who have committed crimes?” asked Magee, one of the most conservative members of the Assembly Democratic Caucus.
Magee’s 121st Assembly District represents most of Otsego County, all of Madison County and parts of Oneida County.
Cuomo, a first-term governor facing re-election this year, suggested that spending public dollars for inmate education could end up saving the state money. An estimated 40 percent of them will commit new crimes once they leave prison, he said.
“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,” Cuomo said.
Both associates and bachelor’s degrees would be offered by the program, Cuomo said, with the degree programs generally taking 2 1/2 to 3 years to complete.
Assemblyman Pete Lopez, R-Scoharie, said he supports programs that equip inmates with entry-level vocational training, but noted he opposes the Cuomo initiative.
“If the inmates want a college education, they should have to pay for it, like everyone else,” said Lopez, the father of four children.
Also standing squarely against the proposal is Assemblywoman Claudia Tenney, R-New Hartford. Her district includes towns in Otsego and Delaware counties.
Tenney, a gun rights advocate who has also been strident in her criticism of year-old gun restrictions known as the New York SAFE-Act, called the latest Cuomo proposal “absurd.”
“He is pandering to a certain group for votes,’’ Tenney said.
In elaborating on her reference, she said, ‘‘the people who think they have been wrongfully put in jail.”
Tenney said Cuomo’s proposal is also unfair to law-abiding college students, many of whom have racked up tens of thousands of dollars in debt before they graduate.
“This is the wrong time for this, especially with all the school issues we have in this state,” said Tenney.
Cuomo’s announcement included statements of support from four state lawmakers, all of them New York City area Democrats.
“A higher level of education will support these men and women in moving forward with their lives, as opposed to returning to criminal activity and prison,” said Assemblyman Karim Camara, D-Brooklyn, the chairman of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus.
The fiercest attack on the Cuomo plan came from state Sen. Greg Ball, R-Patterson, who derisively dubbed it “Attica University” and used his senate website to mount an online petition campaign against it.