It's not the way "School House Rock" or civics textbooks taught kids how a bill becomes law.
In Albany last week, the Legislature considered Gov. George Pataki's proposal for a $500 education tax credit for moderate- and low-income families in poorly performing school districts. It could have been used for tutoring, SAT test preparation, or private school tuition and would have cost the state $400 million. By the end of the week it was passed into law as a $330 "child tax credit" for any purpose. There is no mention of education, and it will cost the state $200 million more.
How that happened is an Albany lesson in how a bill becomes a law that looks nothing like the original bill.
The education tax credit began with backing from Catholic, Jewish, Lutheran and other private school administrators, advocates and parents. It morphed after lobbying by the state's powerful public teachers union.
Although neither side will say how much they spent on the tax credit proposal, both sides sent their lobbyists to cajole lawmakers in private. Publicly, the unions also used television and newspaper ads and billboards to try to shape the argument.
The religious groups used two visits to Albany by New York Cardinal Edward Egan and a tour by Pataki. They also used the power of the pulpit, directing massive letter-writing campaigns from an important bloc of voters, especially for Republicans senators nervous about keeping their majority this fall.
The original education tax credit was for families with children in school, but that was replaced by children aged 4 to 17. Under the new law, the tax credit on personal income taxes would be based on a sliding scale, but families making as much as $170,000 a year with two or three children could qualify. Pataki's education tax credit bill would have provided $500 per child for families making less than $75,000 in underperforming school districts.
In the end, the tax credit approved by the Legislature provided less money to families, included richer families and eliminated a requirement that it be spent on school costs, while costing the state more.
And the results says much about how Albany works.
"It was typical of a process that doesn't look at substance," said E.J. McMahon, director of the fiscally conservative Empire Center for New York State Policy. "It never got below the billboard level."
"This is the way Albany works," McMahon said. "Serious issues don't get discussed in Albany."
The billboards entering Albany and cable television ads last week posed the question: "Public money for private schools?" Among the opponents of the education tax credit was the New York State United Teachers union, which last year spent $1.2 million in lobbying, the ninth highest in Albany. Since 2000, NYSUT contributed $303,000 and the New York City-based United Federation of Teachers contributed $48,000 to candidates, according to state records.
Behind the scenes, Pataki's education tax credit became a negotiating chip in the public school advocates' effort to force the state to comply with a court decision to spend billions of dollars more on New York City schools.
"I did say to them that I would be very open to helping assist their (private) schools, but I thought they had to help assist public schools," said United Federation of Teachers union President Randi Weingarten. "Not only did they not take us up on their offer, they basically said, very nicely, `We don't care."'
She said the union's concern was heightened when Pataki called for the education tax credit in his budget, but he didn't call for adding billions of dollars in the budget to settle the court case won by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity. After the Legislature decided not to tackle the full CFE decision in the 2006-07 budget, the forces against the education tax credit didn't step down.
"If we're going to have a tax cut, we felt they should be focused on lower and middle class parents," she said. The constitution, she noted, requires the state's priority to be for public schools. "I thought it was a great compromise, one that helps all children."
"We think her attempt to link our project with CFE was an attempt to derail our project," said Michael Dana Tobman, executive director of TEACH NYS, the lobbying group created in January by the coalition of religious leaders and private school advocates. "We made a tactical decision, we made a political decision."
Roman Catholic Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn said the opponents of the education tax credit served to "undermine our Democratic process."
"Some people put lines in the sand," said Sen. Martin Golden, a Brooklyn Republican, who had long co-sponsored a bill for $1,000 tax credits for education.
He said the education tax credit is timely because public schools are overcrowded and parochial Catholic schools are closing across the state for lack of students, turning those kids back to overcrowded public schools.
"We should be more responsible," Golden said. "We're saying (to taxpayers), `We want you to take this money and put it toward the education of your child' ... right now (the approved tax credit) can go for basketball tickets or iPods."
Copyright 2006 Newsday Inc.