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Coalition Calls For Mandate Relief

WAMC/Pat Bradley

A coalition of business and labor groups is traveling across New York spelling out an agenda for mandate reform that they claim will ease the tax burden.

The Let New York Work Coalition is comprised of groups from business, local governments, labor and schools. Led by Unshackle Upstate, members are presenting a six-point mandate relief agenda in advance of the fall elections.  In introducing the group to the North Country, Plattsburgh North Country Chamber of Commerce Government Affairs Division Chair Greg McConnell noted that over the last few years much has been done to put the state’s budgetary house in order, but more needs to be done.  “Job one in the next session must be meaningful changes and reforms that relieve our local governments and school districts of the burden of unfunded mandates. This is important for all taxpayers, but certainly for business and job creation. High property taxes are the number one burden for business in New York and a major hurdle for attracting companies and investments from elsewhere,  especially for upstate.”

Unshackle Upstate, a business advocacy organization, is leading the coalition. Executive Director Brian Sampson says Albany’s greatest failure in the past three years is its inability  to enact mandate relief.  “So we got together with our business partners and our local government partners to come up with a six point plan that we believe, if fully implemented, would give the municipalities and the school districts the tools that they need to control their costs and meet the expectations that they have of their constituents - whether that’s the services that are provided at the municipal level or the education that we want for our kids. So we need Albany to understand very clearly that as we go into the elections this fall we want to talk about mandate relief. We want to talk about the impact that it’s having, or the lack of it is having, on our municipalities and our school districts.”

Each member of the coalition explained a segment of the mandate reform agenda.  Mike Durant, New York Director of the National Federation of Independent Business stepped up to call for pension changes.  “Part of our agenda is to revisit Tier 6 or create a new retirement tier that has a defined contribution mechanism in there. By adding this, we believe, as a benefit does not violate the state Constitution. We are not diminishing the existing benefits of any of the retirement tiers. This is an incentive. This is a bonus, we believe, for those employees. And it provides fiscal flexibility for our schools and communities.”

In binding arbitration, three people settle contracts.  NYS Conference of Mayors and Municipal Officials Executive Director Peter Baynes noted there were some reforms last year, but characterized them as minor.  “We’re seeking for binding arbitration panels the same kind of accountability that local officials have. We’re asking for two things. One, we want a definition of ability to pay in the statute. So a binding arbitration panel has to look at if they can afford the contract without cutting services and without raising taxes. The second thing is we’re seeking to have arbitration panels have to deliberate at public meetings subject to the Open Meetings Law. And, maybe even more importantly,  when they decide they have to make a public presentation and explain what the award is and how they think it’s affordable for that community.”

New York State Council of School Superintendents Deputy Director for Advocacy, Research & Communications Bob Lowry rounded out the coalition’s agenda.  “The coalition calls for, with health insurance, capping employer contributions for individual coverage at 85% of premium costs and for family coverage 75%.  The other thing I’ll talk about is we support three bills to restrict the imposition of new unfunded mandates. But the truth is new unfunded mandates could be stopped without any legislation. All that’s really required is for the governor, the assembly, the senate, the Board of Regents and all the state agencies to just say no.”

SUNY New Paltz Director of the Center for Research, Regional Education and Outreach Dr. Gerald Benjamin notes that many of the coalition’s items are long term goals of the business community or local governments, and they have stakes with the provisions.  “Organized labor, for example, has a stake in provisions that affect their relative power at the negotiating table. The unionized workforce, or workforce in general,  has a stake in benefits to workers. Public workers have a stake in pension benefits, health care costs. They’ve shifted to workers, of course, diminished take-home pay of workers. The reason that these matters don’t pass is that the politics are very tough and there are strong forces on both sides.”

Benjamin’s research indicates that statewide politics are being driven by downstate considerations. He says the degree the coalition’s agenda can be made a downstate issue of importance and consequence will determine its success.  “Some of these ideas are good ideas but they’re very tough in years where statewide elections depend mostly on downstate votes.”

Members of the coalition have visited Poughkeepsie, Corning, Binghampton, Rochester, Syracuse, and Albany. Future presentations are planned in western NY, Westchester County, Rockland and Long Island.

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