At breakfast last Sunday, a Peru High School graduate and I were talking about New York's financial situation. If you get old enough, people ask you for some historical perspective, and he wanted to know if I recalled a time when New York was in such a crisis.

The short answer — which I never give — is: I don't remember a time when the state was such a mess.

For 30 years, I've been asking legislators for money. Like thousands of North Country people from every profession and association, I've talked with senators and assemblypersons, asking them for support.

For years, I advocated for the teachers union. The Albany visits were part of an annual ritual, a type of dance choreographed to influence the New York state budget and the legislators' distribution of funds. We who came with our hats in our hands, as well as the lawmakers themselves, knew the rhythm and steps from years of practice.

THE OLD DANCE

As many of you know, of course, Sen. Ronald Stafford had his own rhythm, and the first portion of any visit was spent tracing our genealogy. Because I'm not a North Country native, he pretty much ignored me while he drew my colleagues' family trees from Redford to Harkness to Picketts Corners and Rouses Point. He'd recall marriages, children, jobs and baseball games. It was really quite extraordinary — he knew more history about more people than I do about my own family.

And then Sen. Stafford would ask what he could do for us, and we would tell him what we told all the legislators, which was not much different from what other people were saying in other offices to other elected representatives.

We'd outline the importance of public education, and the senator would agree with us. When it came to money, we'd request more state aid than we expected. He would say that level of support might be difficult, but he'd take care of us. And he'd thank us for coming in.

When we left the offices of senators and assemblypersons, we were sure we'd get something — less than we asked for, but enough to make things better. And we knew we'd be back next year, repeating the ritual.

THE NEW DANCE

This year, however, is different.

As a member of Literacy Volunteers, I recently spoke with Sen. Betty Little, trying to guarantee some funds for us. And our executive director, Norma Menard, met with Assemblywoman Janet Duprey.

We told them how important literacy is, how many adults we teach, how efficiently we do it, and that teaching people to read is not an expense, it's an investment. And they agreed.

But the dance has changed. We used to know there was money available and we were going to get some of it; the question was how much. Now there's less money, a lot less money, though no one seems to know how much. And legislators aren't promising anything other than "to do my best."

Everything about the meetings, except the honesty of the two legislators, was depressing. There sure wasn't much confidence that things would improve anytime soon.

And they didn't. Incredibly, Gov. David Patterson added even more scandal and dysfunction to state government, and North Country jobs continued to disappear.

For a small group like Literacy Volunteers, any decrease in support is a big problem. And a reduction in state aid for schools is catastrophic — it certainly can't be recouped through property taxes on residents who have lost their jobs.

And then there's SUNY's problem, plus the plan to shut down the prisons in Moriah and Lyon Mountain, and they're closing our state parks.

No, I told my friend, I've never seen times like these.

Jerry McGovern, the Press-Republican's coordinator of Newspapers-in-Education, taught in New York state's public schools, and now teaches in the Communication Department of Plattsburgh State. He can be reached at gmcgovern@pressrepublican.com or 565-4126. This column is the opinion of the writer and not necessarily of this newspaper.

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