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N.Y. Unions' Ad Blitz Targets Governor's Education Budget

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Unions representing New York State teachers and school employees are mounting a public-relations blitz to stir opposition to Gov. George E. Pataki's proposed school-aid freeze, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for print, radio, and television advertisements.

A poll released last week suggests these ads have hit home, but some school lobbyists discount their effect and warn that they may backfire.

The ads became part of a chorus of protest that swelled as the legislature's negotiations passed the April 1 deadline set by law for passage of a state budget. This marks the 11th straight time New York's fiscal year has started without an approved budget.

The Republican Governor, elected to office last fall on a platform that promised tax cuts, has proposed cuts in health care, welfare, and higher education spending to handle a projected $4 billion shortfall and keep his campaign pledge.

The ads by school-labor groups aimed to convince voters that the Governor's proposed freeze of state aid would lead to layoffs and overcrowded classes.

'Harry and Louise' Redux

Television commercials paid for by the Civil Service Employees Association--which includes some 42,000 school employees--mimicked ads run by the insurance industry last year to oppose President Clinton's plan to reform health care. Those commercials featured a married couple named "Harry" and "Louise" criticizing the Clinton plan.

The civil-service union's ads show a couple named "Lou" and "Harriet" discussing Mr. Pataki's budget and his campaign promise to cut government waste.

"Is firing school-bus drivers and health aides--is that cutting the fat?" Harriet asks in one spot.

"That's bull," Lou answers.

The ad is one of several that have run statewide for the past month as part of the union's$1 million campaign against the Pataki plan. That is about $200,000 more than the group spends on an average budget campaign, said a union spokesman, Stephen A. Madarasz.

Meanwhile, the New York State United Teachers, the state's largest teachers' union, ran television and radio commercialsfor about a week last month as part of a $500,000 advertising campaign.

In one television spot, an announcer warned that Albany lawmakers were about "to take a chunk out of our kids' future" and would "hurt working families."

As the camera focused on a classroom, the announcer claimed that the Governor's plan "could raise class sizes in elementary schools...and force higher property taxes."

Linda Rosenblatt, a spokeswoman for the teachers' union, said such ads aim to spread the message that with no adjustments for inflation or growing enrollments, a freeze will lead to cuts in school services.

"We wanted to make people understand that they were mistaken if they thought the Governor's budget would not hurt districts," she said.

'Fear Mongering?'

In a poll of 806 registered voters that was released last week, 80 percent of those surveyed backed some sort of tax cut, but 53 percent said freezing state aid would "produce hardships" for school and cause local property taxes to go up.

The poll was commissioned by the Albany Times-Union and Syracuse Herald-American newspapers.

Mr. Pataki has dismissed the ads opposing his budget as "fear mongering."

Some school lobbyists, meanwhile, are worried that their colleagues' commercials are reaching the level of overkill.

"All is fair in love, war, and politics--except when you create bogeymen" that distort the facts, said Louis Grumet, the executive director of the New York State School Boards Association.

Districts will not suffer that much if the Governor's plan passes, he said. But if lawmakers respond to pressure for more education spending and reopen the issue for debate, he warned, advocates for other state programs that would be hit much harder under the Pataki plan would have a chance to raid school revenues. Proposed cuts in higher education are particularly severe.

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