Meaningful Accomplishments in Albany

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After weeks of battling, Gov. Eliot Spitzer and legislative leaders were able to make nice and recently announce compromises on two significant issues: reform of the workers compensation system and confinement of sex offenders beyond their prison terms.

It’s encouraging to see some signs of good will among the state’s top leaders — they’re going to need it. The state budget is due in less than a month, and the issues remain contentious.

The agreement to overhaul workers comp was a big victory for the business community, which has been complaining about the high cost of covering workers for years. The average cost of a claim in New York in 2002 was more than $16,000, compared to a national average closer to $9,000. Higher claim costs drove up the price of insurance to employers, and some New York businesses ended up paying many times what they would pay in other states to cover their workers.

The reform package was something labor unions could get behind because it will raise benefits for injured workers, which haven’t been increased since 1992. With business and labor both interested in change, it may seem surprising this compromise wasn’t reached earlier. But the devil, as always, resided in the details, particularly how to cut the cost of helping partially disabled workers, a major driver in the cost of the program.

New York is one of only a few states that provide lifetime benefits to these workers. Under the reform, permanently partially disabled workers would receive benefits for four to 10 years, depending on the severity of the injury.

Civil confinement of sex offenders hasn’t been brewing in Albany for as long as workers comp, but it’s reached a boil at several points over the past few years. Former Gov. George Pataki badly wanted to pass legislation enabling the state to confine sex offenders posing a threat to the community after they finished their prison sentences, but Assembly Democrats blocked the effort. Pataki even tried to go around the Legislature by enacting regulations allowing for confinement, but a court tossed them out.

Under the deal Spitzer reached with the Legislature, mental-health experts will evaluate sex offenders for their likelihood to commit future crimes and a jury will decide whether to continue to confine the offenders. A judge will then choose whether to confine the offender or impose strict supervision – flexibility which Assembly Democrats had sought. It’s a sensible compromise, though advocates for people with mental illness remain concerned about mixing criminals in with the folks they represent.

This spirit of compromise will have to endure if state leaders are to make the April 1 deadline for a new budget. Spitzer has proposed sweeping changes to the areas of the budget that are the biggest and dearest to legislators and the public: education and health care. He wants to increase education aid by $1.4 billion but distribute it differently, targeting poor schools, and he wants to cut health-care spending by $1.3 billion, including freezing reimbursement rates to hospitals and nursing homes for caring for Medicaid patients.

Schools that aren’t treated as generously as others are trying to make the case for more money, and health-care interests have begun an advertising and public relations war with Spitzer, running critical TV spots and planning to bring 3,000 people to Albany this week to protest the cuts. Spitzer took the unusual step of countering with his own ads, paid for out of campaign funds, featuring crying and smiling babies and the declaration “patients before profits.”

Tally a couple meaningful victories on workers comp and sex offenders for Spitzer and his legislative partners (it’s possible to use the word “partners” with a straight face in this case). And wish them luck on the thorny budget issues that remain.