The topic opened a series of joint legislative budget hearings that began Tuesday

Joint budget hearings are underway for state senators and Assembly members to hear from respective state agency and department heads on the governor's proposed $168.2 billion spending plan for the next fiscal year, which begins April 1.

The series of hearings opened Tuesday with higher education, a topic that filled more than seven hours of discussion, beginning with SUNY Chancellor Kristina M. Johnson, who focused her testimony on three main areas: Stabilization, health and safety, and restoration.

Johnson is asking the state to consider revising its funding mechanism for community colleges, arguing the value-based model, which provides a flat fee based on full-time enrollment, is outdated and leaves campuses without needed resources to support and retain students.

The executive budget proposal, released Jan. 16 by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, would maintain funding for community college base aid at $2,747 per full-time equivalent student. It also includes $441.4 million to support base aid, a decrease of $19.7 million from academic year 2017-18 due to enrollment decreases, according to the state Assembly Ways and Means Committee's Yellow Book budget review and analysis.

Johnson acknowledged the proposed formula, adopted by the SUNY board of trustees, would cost an additional $24 million.

“We realize that this one-year implementation is an extremely heavy lift in a difficult year, but the importance of the request to look at state funding for SUNY community colleges cannot be overstated,” she said. “If our community colleges are meant to continue to be the innovative producers of the educated workforce that New York state needs, stability, predicability and investment should be on the forefront of our efforts.”

Johnson indicated a $350 million investment, while appreciated, would be inadequate to address a growing backlog of critical maintenance projects needed to ensure the health and safety of students, faculty and staff at state-operated campuses and said SUNY looks forward to working with the state to find additional avenues to address the growing concern.

The amount is $200 million less than what was included in the 2017-18 budget.

She also asked for the restoration of funding — cut $5.9 million to a proposed $29.6 million — for the Education Opportunity Program, saying the proposed spending level would mean 765 fewer students would be admitted to SUNY's program in the fall and direct aid awarded to students would be reduced by $500 per student.

The executive proposal also slashes funding for community college child care centers nearly in half from $2.1 million to $1.1 million; but does include an additional $24 million for the Excelsior Scholarship program and continues the statutory phase in of the Excelsior Scholarship program by increasing the threshold to $110,000, which is projected to allow 27,000 more students to attend SUNY and City of New York colleges tuition-free.

Johnson said she was also happy with the inclusion of the state's version of the DREAM Act to allow young undocumented immigrants access to Excelsior Scholarships and state tuition assistance programs.

Johnson's testimony, including providing clarifications and answering questions posed by several senators and Assembly members, lasted for more than two hours.

CUNY Chancellor James Milliken also testified, followed by MaryEllen Elia, commissioner of the state Education Department, who submitted more than 20 pages of written testimony and talked about being “laser focused” on equity and access to post-secondary educational opportunities, particularly for under-represented and underserved populations.

She requested increases for various programs, including $15 million to provide much needed enhanced supports and services to more than 61,000 identified students with disabilities; $4.5 million to support and enhance the Higher Education Opportunity Program; $1 million for the Science and Technology Entry Program; $2.5 for Collegiate Science and Technology Program; $2 million for the Liberty Partnerships Program; and $3 million to create a Bridge to College and Careers Pilot Program.

The latter would enable out-of-school youth and adults an opportunity to obtain critical basic skills, a high school equivalency diploma, and industry-recognized credentials. It would include partnerships between adult education programs and college or training providers.

Andy Pallotta, president of the New York State United Teachers, called on the state to boost its investment in state public higher education institutions to ensure campuses can provide the programs and faculty to help students succeed.

“While the Excelsior Scholarship program has increased opportunities for students and enrollment at SUNY and CUNY, overall state support for public higher education remains below 2009 levels when adjusted for inflation,” he said. “A greater state investment in SUNY and CUNY and its community college system is essential if these institutions are going to thrive in their critical mission of preparing New Yorkers for the next wave of good jobs created by a growing economy.”

Pallotta also said community college students went from paying 39.4 percent of operating costs in 2007-08 to 41.4 percent in 2017-18, while the state's contribution fell from 31.3 percent to 25.4 percent.

“Increasing funding to community colleges is essential,” he said. “These gateway institutions must be able to continue to provide first-rate academic programs and services to students.”

Other witnesses included Elsa Magee, executive vice president, New York State Higher Education Services Corporation; Mary Beth Labate, president, Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities; and Marc Cohen, president, SUNY Student Assembly.