By CRAIG FREILICH
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to make college courses available to state prison inmates is drawing criticism from many Assembly Republicans, including one that represents part of St. Lawrence County.
But Assemblyman Marc Butler says that if a petition website on the issue set up by staff appeals to racist impulses, he will recommend that it be changed.
Butler, a Republican from Newport in Herkimer County, represents the St. Lawrence County towns of Madrid, Norfolk, Stockholm, Parishville, Pierrepont, Clare, Colton, Clifton and Fine, along with Hamilton, Herkimer and Fulton counties and part of Oneida County.
He and his fellow Republicans in the Assembly believe the governor has given them an issue that resonates with their constituents.
“The feedback we’re getting from constituents shows us the proposal is pretty out of touch,” Butler said.
“People are struggling to pay for their own educations, and to support schools and colleges,” he said.
He said he understands that improving inmates’ skills with college courses could cut the rate at which inmates released from prison end up back in incarceration, “but we have to have priorities, and after we get help to others we can look at other feel-good programs.”
He also criticized the governor for simply dropping “a concept” into the political conversation without any details. “What kind of degrees is he talking about? Practical things?
“One of our frustrations with the governor is that he seems to have a penchant for rolling these things out, floated out there, like the SAFE Act, and I don’t believe that’s how the political process should operate.”
But he said “the reaction seems overwhelmingly negative.”
In a news release on the issue Thursday, Butler and other Assembly Republicans urged voters to visit a web site set up for people to sign a petition in opposition to the governor’s idea.
“New Yorkers deserve better from their governor, and I’m asking them to join my fight on this issue by signing the ‘Kids Before Cons’ petition,” he said.
The petition asks people to enter their names, addresses and email addresses, and to add their names to the list of people if they agree that “it is outrageous that the Governor has made free college degrees for convicts a top priority. Hard-working taxpayers in New York should not be forced to pay the college tuition for convicts when our schools are underfunded, when honest families can't afford college for their children, and when our education system is in disrepair. Free college tuition for prisoners is an insult to everyone that plays by the rules and has no relief in sight.”
But there was no indication anywhere on the site who was the sponsor of the petition.
Butler said the site, which he had not seen, was prepared “by staff,” and should be amended to make it clear that the Assembly Republican Conference was responsible for the petition, and it has been changed.
Where the website on Thursday said “Join me in putting our kids before convicts and sign the petition,” and it didn’t say who “me” was, on Friday it said “Join the Assembly Republican Conference in putting our kids before convicts and sign the petition.”
Also on the petition page is a poster split in two with a photo of a group of happy young people, none of whom could be described as African American, was next to another photo of prisoners in handcuffs and orange jumpsuits, most of whom were African Americans. Over the first photo it said “Studied Hard. Worked summer jobs. Saved. Took out loans. All to pay for expensive college educations…”
Above the second photo it said, “Stole a car. Robbed a bank. Shot a bystander. Got a free college education paid for by YOU.”
Butler said he did not believe it was the intention of the site’s designers to appeal to constituent’s feelings about racial stereotypes, but that he would “recommend that be changed.”
The petition web site is at sites.google.com/sites/kidsbeforecons.