Working for Change

March 18-24, 2004
Working for Change

Bishop James Moynihan , at right, and several other New York bishops and Edward Cardinal Egan join in the responsorial psalm at Mass celebrated in Albany at Public Policy Day on March 9
By Eileen Jevis/ SUN staff writer SUN photo(s) Paul Finch ALBANY — As part of the New York State Catholic Conference, over 500 Catholics from around the state converged on Albany on March 9 to lobby political leaders. The Syracuse Diocese was represented by close to 80 constituents who met with senators and assemblypersons to discuss issues important to the Catholic Church. Some of the topics discussed included the unborn victims of violence act, simplification of enrollment for free and low-cost health care plans, parental choice in education, reformation of New York State’s drug sentencing laws, provision for adequate funding and equity for behavioral health services, increasing the availability of affordable housing and protection of religious practices.

John Cataldo, superintendent of Catholic schools in the Syracuse Diocese, met with Assemblyman Bill Magee to request financial help for Catholic schools. “If more schools are forced to close, state aid will sky rocket,” said Cataldo. “Catholic schools haven’t asked for anything.” Magee, who represents the 111th assembly district that includes Madison, Oneida and Otsego Counties, said that there is only $130,000 in available funds in the member initiative capital and he has $2 million dollars worth of requests for those monies. “I have volunteer firefighters, day care facilities, schools and agricultural groups all wanting a portion of that money,” said Magee.
Magee serves as chairman of the Committee on Agriculture and is a member of the Committee on Aging, Banks, Higher Education and Local Governments. In responding to Cataldo’s request for consideration on the parental choice in education initiative, Magee said that the state government has had to make the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) lawsuit for school finance reform its top priority. The lawsuit, brought by the CFE, claimed that New York State was failing in its constitutional obligation to provide a sound basic education to thousands of New York City children. In addition, the CFE stated that the school finance system was radically discriminatory. The court ruled in favor of the CFE and required the state to create a new system. As a result, the state has until to July 30 to revamp the way public schools are funded which will require an additional $5 billion.

Magee said that when this issue was settled, the legislation would look at the parental choice in education issue. While many legislators agree that religious and independent schools would benefit by state funding, they also maintain that their first priority is complying with the court order and improving public schools. Some legislators also contend that the school choice initiative will drain needed resources away from public schools. The parental choice in education program focuses on the economic benefits of keeping religious and independent schools vibrant. It costs more than $12,000 annually to send a child to a public school. Therefore, the half million children currently in Catholic schools saves the taxpayers approximately $6 billion each year. Daniel Fitzgerald, a tenth grader at Notre Dame High School in Utica, presented this issue to Sen. Nancy Larraine Hoffmann’s chief of staff, Sarkis Harootunian. Hoffmann represents the 49th district that covers Madison County as well as parts of Cayuga, Oneida and Onondaga Counties. “My parents sent nine kids to a Catholic school,” said Daniel. “As far as technology, we are treated like second-class citizens because we are Catholic.” Harootunian replied, “The state is in financial crisis, with a huge deficit. This year all of our attention goes to the New York City school districts. All of the money for upstate schools, overall, is gone,” he said. Harootunian agreed that Catholic schools deserve financial assistance with textbooks and technology. However, he reiterated that the state’s financial focus would be on New York City schools. Carol Troy, the campus minister at Notre Dame High School, responded to Harootunian by saying, “The state needs to look ahead. There is an even bigger crisis for Catholic Schools coming. I know public schools are struggling, but it will cost the state billions of dollars if Catholic students start going to public schools.”
Cataldo requested that Harootunian pass along to Sen. Hoffmann his request for a portion of the member items money that is available. “We have never asked for member help,” said Cataldo. “We are asking now. Anything along that line would be helpful.” Cataldo explained that textbooks are considered the old form of education and that technology is considered the newest form of education. “Please ask Sen. Hoffmann to advocate for us so that our students can compete,” said Cataldo.
Donald Schug, also a tenth grader at Notre Dame High School, shared his opinions with Harootunian. “Central New York is a depressed area,” said Donald. “Parents should have a right to choose the education that is best for their children. It would be nice to have the technology advantages we need in order to compete.” Tenth-grader Bianca Zongrone agreed. “The history textbook we use at Notre Dame High School only goes up to the year 2000,” she said. “We are missing important information that we need in order to be ready to take regents exams. We aren’t being educated on what’s happening today.” The meeting with Sen. Hoffmann’s chief of staff ended when he told the students, “You have come with some good points and difficult problems.” Although Harootunian did not take notes during the meeting, he said that he would pass the group’s concerns on to Sen. Hoffmann. Sen. Raymond Meier, 47th district representative that includes Lewis County and parts of Oneida and St. Lawrence County, met with the Notre Dame students and Cataldo. He listened as the students reiterated their concerns regarding outdated technology hardware and inferior facilities.
“When we look at public schools, we see that they have state of the art facilities, extensive sports programs and big new additions,” said Donald. “Our parents pay both school taxes and tuition. Why can’t Catholic schools have these advantages?” Sen. Meier responded, “Generally speaking, we don’t fund private schools, especially those tied with religious organizations due to constitutional and legal prohibitions. We can’t fund the schools, but we can aid the family,” said Sen. Meier. Sen. Meier said that he has been critical of building aid in public schools because he believes it encourages extravagance. He discussed with the students and Cataldo the education tax credit legislation S.3355 by Sen. Mendez that would offer parents a percentage of the tuition amount as a tax deduction. “The tax credit won’t happen soon,” said Sen. Meier. “There is opposition in Albany.” Sen. Meier also said that vouchers for tuition will never go anywhere either. “The teachers’ unions will block it. It is the state’s preliminary obligation to fund public education,” he said.
Sen. Meier explained that teachers’ unions and the NEA view every dollar that helps Catholic schools as money that lawmakers are taking away from public schools. “Your parents made an important value choice in sending you to a Catholic school,” said Sen. Meier. “The way we fund education is the single most contentious item on the agenda. The tax burden in this state is a great one.” Brian Burns, director of Brighton Family Center in Syracuse, lobbied lawmakers to rescind the Rockefeller Drug Law which places severe mandatory minimum sentencing requirements on nonviolent drug offenders. Assemblyman Bill Magee said that there was no question that something had to be done to reform the law. “It’s hard to get everyone to agree. Some in the assembly think that the law goes too far. Some think it doesn’t go far enough,” said Assemblyman Magee. “I won’t have a problem supporting whatever goes through.” Assemblyman Magee agreed with Burns that some who were sentenced under the law would be better served elsewhere, such as a drug treatment center. Burns also initiated discussion of Gov. Pataki’s plan to cut Medicaid funding for the Child and Family Health Plus program. Burns explained that in the long run, if families were forced to go to emergency rooms for treatment because there was no health care provided to them, the cost to the state would be detrimental. Magee agreed. “I find it interesting that the governor is thinking of cutting something he spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on advertising,” said Assemblyman Magee.
Burns asked Sen. Hoffmann’s chief of staff where she stands on the issue of the Rockefeller Drug Law reform. “She supports reform,” he said. “It’s a priority issue with a lot of support. The laws are outdated. There are other options than incarceration. The senator is in favor of those,” said Harootunian. In other offices in the legislative building, many committed, informed Catholics lobbied lawmakers on issues that are both moral and legal. Bishop James Moynihan met personally with Sen. John DeFrancisco of the 50th senate district. The pair spoke about same-sex unions and religious freedom. Legislative proposals that were introduced in 2003 would grant the same status to non-marital relationships as marital relationships, which would result in legalizing same-sex marriages.
According to information provided by the NYS Catholic Conference, “Legislation is needed in New York State to make a marriage null and void if contracted by two persons of the same sex, regardless of whether the marriage was created or recognized in another state.” The Catholic Conference opposes legalizing same-sex marriage or granting equivalent status to non-marital relationships and will support legislation to prohibit the recognition of same-sex civil unions or marriages. Bishop Moynihan said that he and Sen. DeFrancisco were in total accord on the issues discussed. “He’s 100 percent in agreement,” said Bishop Moynihan. “The senator is certainly on our side when it comes to same-sex relationships. He’s also very much in favor of tax credits for our schools, as is Gov. Pataki.”
Bishop Moynihan pointed out that the term “same-sex marriages” is a misnomer. “There is no such thing,” he said. “Marriage is a sacred contract between a man and a woman for the procreation and education of offspring and the mutual support of one another,” said the bishop. Bishop Moynihan also stated that Sen. DeFrancisco would support Maltese’s bill, the Unborn Victims of Violence Act. The bill, numbered S.403 in the Senate and A.7524 in the Assembly, is one of simple justice for mothers and their unborn children. It is not an abortion issue, rather the bill deals with the issue of an outside assailant who maims or kills an unborn child during the commission of a crime against a pregnant woman. There are currently 28 states that have fetal assault and homicide statutes on the books. New York is not among them. As 500 Catholics met with lawmakers to lobby for important moral issues, one can only hope that there is power in numbers. “I felt that we made an impact,” said Daniel. “The best part of the day for me was talking to Sen. Meier. He was honest and up front.” Daniel said that he felt the group was successful in reminding lawmakers about the issues at hand. “It will be a slow fight, but God willing, we will prevail in the end, one step at a time.”

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