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End Of Session Brings Push For Union Benefit "Sweeteners"

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo
WAMC Photo by Dave Lucas
Governor Andrew Cuomo in Goshen, NY 09.22.11

  Governor Andrew Cuomo is promising police and firefighters in New York City a better deal on their disability benefits, as a budget watch dog group warns against the proliferation of end of session bills that give union workers more benefits.

Cuomo made a rare appearance at a rally held by firefighters and police union members from New York City to support their push for better disability benefits.

The watchdog group Citizens Budget Commission says the event comes in the final days of the legislative session, when over 50 bills have emerged that enhance benefits for state and local public employees, with a price tag of $140 million. The Commission’s Betsy Lynam says the measures undermine recent efforts to reign in union benefit costs.

“That is the pattern we’ve seen over and over,” Lynam said. “There are some changes made in hard times, and then when times improve these bills crop up.”

She says the increased benefits will lead to spiraling costs to taxpayers in the future.   

Governor Cuomo himself waged a bitter battle with state worker unions to win the agreement for a new, lowered tier of health and retirement benefits for new employees.

But Cuomo, in his speech, says firefighters and police in New York are getting lower benefits than the rest of the state. He says all of the other public protection employees in New York receive 75 percent of their pay if they become disabled on the job, but in New York City, they receive only 50 percent, with a deduction for any social security payments.

“Do you work less hard?” Cuomo asked the union members, who shouted “no!” in answer.”

Lynam admits it’s tough to say no to union members who often work on politicians’ election campaigns, but she urges lawmakers to stick to their prior reforms.

“Firefighters are brave and it’s hard to say no to them,” Lynam said. “But these benefits have to be sustainable over the really long term.”

The governor says this case is different, though, and he’s trying to right a wrong. He says the benefits were mistakenly lowered in 2009, before he was governor, at the height of the state’s fiscal crisis. And speaking afterward, he says there’s no contradiction between his prior advocacy for lowered benefits for unionized state and local workers and pushing for an increase for the police and firefighters.  

“I am the champion of reducing pension costs,” Cuomo said. “I’m also the champion of fairness. This is not a sweetener.”

Cuomo’s position puts him at odds with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has proposed a less generous increase in the disability pensions. Cuomo, who calls de Blasio a good friend, has also been publicly critical of the mayor’s plan to revise a tax break for real estate developers who agree to set said a portion of their projects for affordable housing. Cuomo says with the renewal deadline now only a few days away, it’s too late to make any changes to the provision.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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