Campaign Rhetoric vs. Albany Reality

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Candidates looking to replace George Pataki as governor are ramping up talk about reforming state government, changing the status quo.

They say it’s necessary to bring down local tax bills and improve upstate’s dismal job creation record.

Now . . . let’s juxtapose this rhetoric with a big dose of Albany reality – the one that says, “stick your neck out a bit and you’ll get slapped back.”

This realistic message comes courtesy of the state’s public employees unions.

Rochester-area lawmakers Joe Morelle and Jim Alesi submitted legislation to curb spending on workers compensation for employees. It’s a benefit long-regarded as one of the most generous in the nation, and one of the most costly to local businesses.

The bill would end permanent workers compensation payments to those with a partial disability. It would create a task force charged with speeding the process of getting people off disability and back to work. It would reduce the benefits by half of those who retire and get Social Security (right now, workers can collect full workers compensation benefits along with their Social Security benefit).

It would have attempted to reform the so-called Scaffold Law, which grants a worker injured from a fall a benefit regardless of who is to blame.

The measure also has some sweeteners for the unions, such as increasing weekly benefit payments.

Workers compensation reform heads the list of reforms desired by organizations that represent business, such as the Rochester Business Alliance. It was part of the Unshackle Upstate effort, a business-backed effort to make New York more competitive.

Labor immediately seized on the proposal. The state’s AFL-CIO planned radio ads to run in the Rochester market that paint Morelle, an Assembly Democrat, and Alesi, a Senate Republican, as being tools of the insurance industry. This ad campaign comes even though the two veteran legislators have no real electoral competition in November.

And even as Morelle admits the bill wasn’t likely to be approved by the state legislature before they adjourned this year. Morelle said the hope was to get the workers compensation reform matter on the agenda for the next governor.

“Look,” Morelle said. “I don’t sit up a night worrying about the insurance company. I do stay up worrying about whether we can attract young people here . . . whether we can improve our economy.”

But look, this ad campaign isn’t aimed at Morelle, or Alesi. This was a message to all of Albany government by labor: We will take you on if you try to change things.

Now couple that with this news. The Assembly and Senate approved legislation that will give public employee unions more leverage in negotiations with government. The bill, originally introduced in the Senate by Rochester’s Joe Robach, would allow a union to petition a mediator (the Public Employment Relations Board) and charge government negotiators with failing to bargain in good faith. If the mediator rules this to be so, PERB can order the government to give the union an automatic 1 percent increase in salary. PERB can impose an additional one half percent salary increase for every additional three months it deems the government fails to bargain in good faith.

It changes the state’s Taylor Law, which does prevent a public employees union from striking. The rationale is that there is little reason for a government to seriously bargain for a new contract.

Local government organizations are dismayed. The New York State Conference of Mayors issued a position statement when the bill was reintroduced back in February. NYCOM stated that no statistic exists to prove government has bargained in bad faith. The legislation provides “a response to a non-existent problem” and also has no equivalent penalty if a union is hampering negotiations.

But the real problem is that it’s just another potential cost-escalator for governments. That impacts a tax bill, including local taxes. And higher taxes are a problem when it comes to economic competitiveness.

“This bill,” said Peter Baynes, executive director of NYCOM. “Runs contrary to everything we’ve been saying about how local government costs are driven by personnel costs. And about how they need help from the state.”

The legislation passed unanimously in the Senate and by a 133-1 count in the Assembly. None of Rochester’s contingent, by the way, voted against the bill. It still awaits the signature of Gov. Pataki, who may fight it.

No one is making any radio ads about this. And everything is fine in an Albany where special interest organizations, like public unions, spent thousands in campaign donations to lawmakers.

This is instructive for the campaign season. Candidates freely talk about challenging the status quo and working to weed out the regulations that have long driven up government spending and made New York uncompetitive economically.

The rhetoric is nice. But we may also want to know how willing Tom Suozzi, John Faso and Eliot Spitzer are to stand up to Albany’s entrenched special-interest reality.

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