Friday, March 16, 2012


The People's House
photo: Ove Overmyer
ALBANY — State lawmakers on Thursday morning approved a controversial measure to cut the retirement benefits for future public employees across the state, dealing a setback to middle-class families at the end of a dramatic, dysfunctional all-night session.

The pension changes were less drastic than those sought by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, applying to fewer employees and saving less money than he had hoped for. However, he is still pitching this development as a political win.

The pension changes were part of a policy package approved overnight that intertwined several of the thorniest issues facing lawmakers this year. Working through the night, the Legislature approved a reconfiguration of the state’s Assembly and Senate districts, the language of a proposed constitutional amendment to legalize casino gambling and the creation of one of the most extensive criminal DNA databases in the nation.

The governor and legislative leaders first allowed the public to see the details of the pension legislation at 3 a.m. Thursday. The irony of this ploy cannot be overstated—this week is Sunshine Week—a time to celebrate and raise awareness for freedom of information and transparency issues with all levels of government.

The Republican-controlled Senate approved the measure an hour later, despite the absence of most of the chamber’s Democrats, who had walked out over redistricting. More on that later. Democrats argued that the pension vote was invalid because there was no quorum present for the vote; Republicans insisted that a quorum had been met for the pension vote.

The Democrat-controlled Assembly approved the pension changes shortly after 7 a.m. The Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, had kept the voting open for nearly two hours as he called in lawmakers who had gone to sleep in a tense effort to muster the votes for passage. In the end, the Assembly approved the measure by a comfortable margin.

The pension deal comes as state and local governments around the country take similar steps to reduce retirement costs, often prompting pitched battles with labor unions.

Mr. Cuomo had significantly scaled back the most contentious portion of his pension proposal, which would have given new public workers the option of forgoing a traditional pension and instead choosing a defined contribution plan, similar to a 401 (k) style plan. He and lawmakers agreed to offer the defined contribution option, but only to new state workers who earn $75,000 or more and are nonunionized.

In another concession by Mr. Cuomo, the deal did not make significant changes to the retirement benefits of New York City police officers and firefighters.

NYS Comptroller Tom DiNapoli says the pension reform math is still fuzzy, and it will probably cost local governments millions of additional dollars to implement Cuomo’s plan in the short term.

Here are some details of the new Tier 6 plan:

  • New employee contribution rates (permanent)
  • Those making $45,000 or less still pay 3 percent
  • $45,000 to $55,000 pay 3.5 percent
  • $55,000 to $75,000 pay 4.5 percent
  • $75,000 -$100,000 pay 5.75 percent
  • Salaries over $100,000 pay 6 percent
  • Public employees become eligible for retirement age 63 (penalty of 6.5 for every year if you retire prior)
  • Sick leave credit down to 100 days
  • Overtime capped at same as Tier 5

Again, this legislation raises the minimum retirement age to 63 from 62 for state workers. It will also require most workers to increase the portion of their salaries that they contribute to the pension system from the current 3 percent to as much as 6 percent for the highest earners.

This is not real reform, and for the taxpayers of the state this does not give them a better deal for their money. It remains a 25-30% pension cut and translates to a lower standard of living for the middle class.

CSEA activists talk with Rochester
area Assemblyman H. Bronson outside
the Assembly Chamber on March 6.
photo: Lynn Miller
As of today, we still don't have all the precise numbers because it was a backroom deal, negotiated without public input, and we are literally still crunching the numbers coming out of the final bill. As Cuomo has publicly stated in the past, he thinks it's better to get things done as quickly as possible, even if that means there's no time for public input. The most important thing to know is that Assembly Democrats and Republican Senators protected their job security instead of looking after the residents they swore to serve and protect.

Obviously, Mr. Cuomo’s agenda has infuriated labor leaders, including our very own Danny Donohue. Our CSEA Local 1000 president, who oversees the state’s largest union of public workers, the Civil Service Employees Association, said that the pension deal was “shoved down the throat of state legislators fixated on their own self-preservation.”

 “This deal is about politicians standing with the 1 percent — the wealthiest New Yorkers — to give them a better break while telling nurses, bus drivers, teachers, secretaries, and laborers to put up and shut up,” Mr. Donohue said after the vote approving the pension changes.

Overnight, lawmakers also approved a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow full-scale commercial casinos. The state has nine racetrack gambling parlors and five American Indian casinos; the amendment, which would have to be approved once more by the Legislature and then by voters, would authorize up to seven Las Vegas-style casinos.

The all-night session in Albany resolved many of the most prominent issues facing the Legislature. Lawmakers have not yet reached an agreement on a state budget for the fiscal year that begins April 1, but legislative leaders have expressed confidence that they would reach a deal within days.

Redistricting held hostage in pension talks

Lawmakers also completed their part of a contentious redistricting compromise with Mr. Cuomo. He had pledged during his campaign for governor not to approve maps unless they were drawn by an independent body, but he reversed his position because, he said, approval of the maps drawn by the Legislature enabled him to get long-term redistricting reform.

In exchange for Mr. Cuomo’s approval of the maps, lawmakers agreed to support a constitutional amendment that would create a bipartisan redistricting commission after the 2020 census. In an effort to ensure that the Legislature follows through with its pledge to approve the constitutional amendment two years in a row, Mr. Cuomo insisted that it pass a law that would grant the governor greater power over redistricting if the Legislature abandoned the amendment.

The Assembly and the Senate approved the lawmaker-drawn maps and the constitutional amendment late Wednesday night, and the backup law early Thursday. The maps approved by the Legislature were for legislative districts only; lawmakers have been unable to agree on how to reduce the number of Congressional districts in the state to 27 from 29 and have left that task to a federal court.

Mr. Cuomo’s compromise on legislative redistricting drew criticism from Senate Democrats, who departed the chamber en masse rather than participate in the vote, held just before midnight. Government watchdog groups are pressing the governor to veto the maps, which they described as gerrymandered to protect incumbents and as unfair to minority voters.

The Senate minority leader, John L. Sampson, a Brooklyn Democrat, questioned whether Mr. Cuomo had dropped his opposition to the redistricting maps in exchange for passage of his pension proposal.
These are the actions you would expect if this was a Republican governor.  One Democratic lawmaker was quoted as saying to the NYT, “Governor Cuomo always talks about how Albany has changed. Albany has changed. Albany has changed for the worst.”

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