ELIOT Spitzer's first legislative session as governor ended last week with gridlock on some of his top priorities. But while they couldn't agree on campaign-finance and public-construction reform, Assembly Democrats and Senate Republicans were firmly united in their willingness to pander to New York's public-employee unions.
In what's become an annual Albany tradition, both houses of the Legislature passed a slew of bills that would expand union power and perks at the expense of management and taxpayers. These end-of-session specials included more than two dozen measures enhancing pension benefits or eligibility for different groups of public employees, with costs to state and local government running into tens of millions of dollars a year.
Similar or identical bills were vetoed by former Gov. George Pataki during his last few years in office. Now it's Spitzer's turn to choose sides.
The new governor started off on the right foot earlier this year, when he used his very first veto to reject a law that would have made disciplinary rules for police officers and firefighters a subject of collective bargaining in municipalities where discipline is now controlled by local law. The Bloomberg administration had strongly objected, saying the new provision would remove the ability of the city's police and fire commissioners to determine the best punishment for officers who violate the public trust or departmental standards.
But now the Legislature, undaunted, has passed a new version of the bill effectively mandating that all public-employee discipline be subject to union contracts.
It also approved a bill mandating that government workers must be allowed to have a union representative present if they are questioned in connection with a disciplinary matter - even if they don't happen to be members of the union.
Both measures would weaken the quality and efficiency of public services by making it more difficult to hold public employees accountable for their on-the-job actions.
Another end-of-session union-backed bill would have potentially massive financial consequences throughout New York: It would prohibit the state and its local governments from in any way "diminishing" the lifetime health benefits provided to retired public employees - unless the same changes are made for active employees.
The steadily rising cost of employee benefits is straining budgets at every level of government. However, because the retirees' benefit costs are generally lumped in with those of active employees in annual budgets, they have long been hidden from public scrutiny - until recently.
New accounting rules are requiring governments to clearly disclose the true long-term cost of their promises to retirees. The state and New York City each estimate that they have promised roughly $50 billion in health coverage and other non-pension benefits to current and future retired workers. Add the likely tally for school districts and other local governments, and the statewide tab for current and future retirement benefits other than pensions is likely to range between $150 and $200 billion - part of a nationwide state and local government burden estimated at between $1.5 and $2 trillion.
The accounting change and the spotlight it will shine on the cost of retiree benefits explains why the Legislature felt pressed to pass a law shielding these benefits from even modest efforts to save money. Far from merely "protecting" an already privileged class of workers, the measure is an effort to lock down current health benefits before the public learns the real price tag.
A similar "temporary" moratorium on changes affecting health benefits for retired school-district employees was regularly extended under Pataki after it was signed by then-Gov. Mario Cuomo as an election-year gift to the teachers' union in 1994. But this is no grounds for extending the same costly entitlement to everyone on a New York government payroll. The bill blocking any effort to reduce health coverage costs for all other government workers would sunset after a year - but once in place, it's likely to be renewed as regularly as the schools version.
During his first six months in office, Spitzer has sent mixed signals on where he will stand when the interests of unions are pitted against those of the general public. For example, while he vetoed the initial version of the police- and fire-discipline bill, he also has tapped former union lawyers to run both his own collective-bargaining office and the state Public Employment Relations Board, the state board ultimately responsible for settling contract disputes with public employees.
Moreover, Spitzer recently issued an executive order that would add 60,000 independent day-care providers to the growing rolls of the public-employee unions.
Early in his tenure, looking ahead to a budget battle that never materialized, Spitzer pointedly noted: "I have two pens, one with which to sign laws and one with which to veto." He needs to make sure they're both full of ink.
Original Source: http://www.nypost.com/seven/06252007/postopinion/opedcolumnists/eliots_big_test_opedcolumnists_e_j__mcmahon.htm