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Know Your Rights
Source: Times Union
Subject: Education Justice
Type: Media Coverage

A last stand against budget reductions

ALBANY — If demonstrators get their way, Wednesday night will witness the first mass "camp-in" at the state Capitol — complete with sleeping bags, s’mores and vocal protests against the 2011-2012 state budget.

More than a dozen groups [including members of Make the Road New York], many associated with unions, expect about 1,000 "normal people" to travel to Albany from as far away as Buffalo and Long Island.

The participants — including teachers, public employees, college students and renters — are making a last-ditch stand against Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s campaign to close a $10 billion budget deficit with deep cuts in education and health care spending and the threat of 9,800 layoffs of state employees. Cuomo reached a budget deal with legislative leaders on Sunday, and bills began making their way through the Senate and Assembly on Tuesday.

Protest organizers say Wednesday evening could see the largest pizza delivery in Capitol history (70 extra-large pies), with s’mores served later in the evening — minus campfires. Thursday morning, they plan to offer an 8 a.m. breakfast on the Capitol’s fourth floor for participants as well as anyone else who shows up.

"Wednesday will be a culmination of that kind of frustration that’s been bubbling over through this entire budget session," said Ron Deutsch, executive director of New Yorkers for Fiscal Fairness, which is underwritten in large part by public-sector unions.

Deutsch said Wednesday’s get-together is intended to send a message of deep dissatisfaction over the $132.5 billion state budget. The organizers are especially frustrated over the slated Dec. 31 expiration of the temporary surcharge on high-income New Yorkers. The end of the so-called "millionaires tax" has been assailed as a tax cut for the rich that places a greater burden on those who will feel the brunt of state budget cuts: poor people and middle-class taxpayers.

"The halls around here have been louder more frequently than they have been in many years," said Michael Kink, executive director for Strong Economy for All and a former top aide to Senate Democrats. "This is one last time during this budget when there’ll be ringing voices."

Kink, whose group is underwritten by a number of unions, said he has met with State Police Maj. William Sprague, the Troop G commander, in attempts to work out a way for people to stay the night in the Capitol.

State Police spokesman Lt. Glenn Miner said he can’t discuss the details of the security plan. "If you want to look at how we’ve handled certain situations in the recent past, it would be something similar to that," he said.

So far, 50 protesters have been hauled out of the Capitol and arrested for disorderly conduct during demonstrations.

Dozens of others protests, including several in the vicinity of the governor’s office, have gone off without arrests.

Troopers — whose own agency will be cut by the budget — have surrounded protesters blocking public areas, and removed anyone disobeying an order to move.

Attorney Mark Mishler, who also met with Sprague, said he is representing 21 of the people arrested in prior protests. He doesn’t anticipate any more people will be charged as a result of Wednesday’s action.

"It’s our position that people have a constitutionally protected right to be in the Capitol if they are there for the purpose of voicing opinions, and voicing dissent of decisions or prospective decisions by public officials." Mishler said.

On most weekdays, the Capitol closes to the public at 7 p.m., although no effort is made to shoo out those remaining in the building.

Lobbyists regularly stalk the halls during late-night sessions.

"I don’t think we are talking about civil disobedience," said Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education. "All we are saying is give kids a chance."

Kink said similar camp-ins in the statehouse in Madison, Wis., during the recent fight over labor legislation have aided organizers seeking to recruit for the Albany event. The governor is expected to be in his second-floor office during at least part of the protest.

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