At 11 a.m. today, Gov. David Paterson hosted a student town hall meeting in a packed Wadsworth auditorium.
After welcoming remarks by President Christopher Dahl and an introduction by Student Association President Danielle Forrest, Paterson stepped onto the stage to the applause of the audience.
"Please withhold any applause until you've heard what I have to say," Paterson opened and appropriately began a discussion which focused largely on the negative effects of the severe budget deficit New York state is experiencing.
Paterson noted that by law, the state's budget must be closed by April 1 and that his intentions in traveling around the state and hearing from citizens were to get ideas for solutions and to determine what issues are bothering people the most. Throughout the hour, he emphasized that while nobody is happy about making the cuts, he believes they are necessary to avoid even more severe financial shortfalls in the future.
Several audience members asked Paterson about the effects of the SUNY tuition increase on students and the fact that only 10 percent of the increased revenues are actually funneled back to campuses. Paterson said that while there have been nine tuition increases in the past 30 years, this marks the first increase since then that any of the money has gone back to the schools. He said that the money will be shifted to the campuses in 10-percent intervals over the next several years.
As alternatives to raising tuition, students suggested raising taxes on wealthier residents and using money from the national economic stimulus package to offset some of the cuts. Paterson said to use stimulus money to temporarily fix the deficit would merely continue the failed strategy of Albany to "refinance into the future and hope that [the problems] go away." He did note that some of the stimulus money would be spent on human services and restoring cuts to K-12 education.
"Higher education is the engine that could reignite our state economy," said Paterson, adding that people are leaving New York because the jobs are leaving. He compared SUNY's potential to the huge economic impact that the construction of the Erie Canal and Erie-Lackawanna Railroad had on New York two centuries ago.
Today, he said, colleges and universities are an attraction to economic development, but the SUNY system is far behind other state university systems like those in California and Massachusetts. He also outlined the potential economic impact of the proposed high-speed rail between Buffalo and Albany.
In addition to questions about education, Paterson fielded questions from students and local residents about carbon cap and trade emissions, the proposed Youth Block Grant, the proposal to sell wine in grocery stores and the effects of pension expenses on the state budget.
Dahl concluded by appealing to Paterson that tuition hikes can serve as a sort of "second tax" on families. Paterson responded candidly that "if we rescind [the hikes], then we have to replace them" and challenged Dahl to suggest another method of obtaining those monies.
After answering the prepared questions, Paterson invited members of the audience to speak with him individually.
"I think it was a good, open discussion," said sophomore James Cantella.
"He showed he was very knowledgeable about everything," said freshman Nick Turecamo.
"It was fun watching him try to avoid saying, 'we have no money,'" said junior Steve Shon, referring to Paterson's repeated declarations that major cuts are necessary if the state is to be financially sustainable.
Today's event was part of a series of town hall meetings Paterson is conducting throughout upstate New York. He spoke in Rochester yesterday and in Niagara Falls on March 4.