State lawmakers from both parties questioned the price tag of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's plan to make college tuition free for middle class students Tuesday, suggesting the true cost of the proposal could be far higher.
The proposal has won the Democratic governor national attention and applause from education advocates, but lawmakers said during a budget hearing they won't support it before they can gauge its cost to taxpayers.
Cuomo's office has predicted the program would cost $163 million - a figure some lawmakers say seems far too low.
"All the bean counters say there's no way," Sen. Kenneth LaValle, R-Long Island, said of Cuomo's estimate. "We've got to be able to find out whether the bean counters outside the governor's office are wrong, or if the governor's folks are right."
Cuomo's proposal would cover whatever tuition costs remain after other sources of federal and state financial aid is factored in for students from households making $125,000 or less. The program would not pay for room and board.
"Many of us have raised questions about the ultimate cost," said Sen. Toby Stavisky, D-Queens.
Cuomo has said the cost of the program amounts extremely low compared to the billions of dollars the state spent on education overall. He said the proposal would help middle-class families struggling with the burden of rising higher education costs. Budget officials put together the cost estimate, which was somewhat based on free community college programs in other states.
Nancy Zimpher, chancellor of the State University of New York system, acknowledged some of the financial details of Cuomo's free tuition proposal still are being refined.
"We've got a team of people ... to try to estimate that," she said.
Advocates who testified at Tuesday's hearing also questioned Cuomo's relatively modest estimate.
"The cost is hard to reconcile with the actual numbers," said Barbara Bowen, president of the union that represents faculty at the City University of New York.
Cuomo included the plan in a $152 billion state budget proposal unveiled last week. Lawmakers hope to approve a final spending plan by April 1.
New York has the nation's largest public university system, with 440,000 students spread among 64 campuses across the state.