Gov. David Paterson was hit with some pointed questioning by college students Thursday, but he didn't apologize for tough budget cuts that could hit young people and increase their public college tuition.
Instead, he mixed humor and stern calls for responsibility to tell students his budget cuts are still needed in the face of a historic fiscal crisis, despite billions of dollars that will come from a federal stimulus package approved Wednesday.
Morrisville State College and Cazenovia College students asked him why college students and young people who are just trying to get started should be hurt by a state budget crisis years in the making.
"I think he's a good man, but I think they still made the wrong decision in raising tuition," 18-year-old Lynette Winstead of New York City said in an interview after Paterson's one-hour town hall meeting on higher education issues. "If anything, they should have raised taxes on the rich."
She said Paterson's proposed 14 percent increase in tuition at the State University of New York and City University of New York comes as families and individuals were already facing major costs to attend college. A criminal justice major at Morrisville State College, Winstead said the tuition increase hurts the chances of young New Yorkers who, given a chance in college, will make New York better and stronger.
Dave Pogue, a 20-year-old network administration major at Morrisville, said things are also tight financially for his family back in the Schenectady County village of Scotia.
"But I'm hoping with the tax hike and what he's doing it will help stabilize the economy and in the future this won't happen again," said Pogue.
Paterson said he hates many of his own cuts, especially those to higher education. But the crisis demands across-the-board cuts. The 2009-10 state budget due April 1 is expected to include a deficit of more than $14 billion, and growing, on total spending that will be around $120 billion. Failure to take painful action could eventually bankrupt the state, he said.
Even with the federal economic stimulus package, he said years of overspending in Albany and the worst recession since the 1970s have created a fiscal crisis that requires "honest budgeting." He said state government must begin to spend within its means, despite the powerful lobbies pushing for more education and health funding.
"This is a very, very difficult moment in our history, and a moment of decision," he told about 500 students, educators, farmers and nearby residents.
It could have been a tough crowd for the Harlem Democrat, who is proposing an increase in their tuition as well as hikes in taxes and fees hitting young people hard on items like music downloads and concert tickets. It was the latest road show for Paterson to promote his 2009-10 budget proposals and listen to New Yorkers' responses as he calls for fiscal discipline and rare cuts in politically sensitive spending, including school aid and hospital funding.
"I didn't send any surrogates," Paterson, who is legally blind, said from the stage where he fielded prepared questions for an hour without an aid or notes. "Because at least when you're calling yourself a leader, you should go out and act like one."
It was one of several lines that drew strong applause.