Newsday on the Military Enhanced Recognition Incentive and Tribute program, April 17
The financial cost to New York for finally passing a law that says people brought here illegally as young children can access financial aid for state colleges is estimated at $27 million annually. It’s a price Democrats were glad to commit to pay once they took over the State Senate this year, and rightfully so. New York will be better off for it.
But now the political price of the Sen. Jose Peralta Dream Act is clear. Any time Democrats hesitate to approve a plan Republicans support, the GOP will howl that New York is paying millions to send immigrants here illegally to college but they won’t fund (fill in the blank).
Republicans test-drove this strategy last week when some Assembly Democrats tabled a bill to fund college for spouses and dependents of military members killed or severely disabled on duty outside of a war zone. Children and spouses of military members killed or severely disabled in war zones already were covered in the $2.7 million Military Enhanced Recognition Incentive and Tribute program (MERIT) included in the recently approved state budget, which is how such spending is funded when the program, and not the political optics, are the priority.
The tabling of the GOP bill by Democrats, who said it was outside of the budget and didn’t contain data on how much it would cost, was technically correct but politically foolish. After Republican legislators exploded with indignation, a plan from Senate Democrats to expand the program next year so it could be budgeted properly didn’t help, and the issue caught fire. It became an inferno when President Donald Trump tweeted, “In New York State, Democrats blocked a Bill expanding College Tuition for Gold Star families after approving aid for illegal immigrants. No wonder so many people are leaving N.Y. Very Sad!”
A spokesman for Senate Republicans pointed out that when they controlled the chamber last year, the same bill passed 62-0. But that vote included every Democratic senator and took place six weeks after the budget agreement that could have funded it was signed. Asked why Senate Republicans never included this measure — clearly a bipartisan slam dunk when handled properly — in their budget proposals or demanded it in end-of-session negotiations when they controlled the chamber, that spokesman had no answer.
Allowing dependents of New York military members killed or severely disabled in the line of duty outside of combat zones access to college funding is worthy, and it’s going to happen. The controversy ended Wednesday when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo issued an executive order to expand the MERIT program to include this group. But no one has been able to say how many such dependents there are or project how much funding is needed. For his announcement, Cuomo appeared with Mecca Nelson of Brooklyn, whose husband died in combat in Iraq and whose family was already covered by the existing program.
The Gold Star imbroglio is an apt lesson on today’s political climate. The cynical play by the state’s Republicans got them both the reaction they wanted and the policy they claimed to seek. The state’s Democrats found themselves outmaneuvered and smeared for standing in the way of a meritorious policy they didn’t actually oppose.