Pension-reform battle ends with bad blood but a Cuomo victory
Gov. Andrew Cuomo campaigned on it. Mayor Michael Bloomberg beat the drum for it. Editorial boards championed it. Polls showed New York voters supported it.
Yet by the time a pension reform bill hit the Assembly fl oor at 5 a.m. one day last week, its fate was still uncertain. It would reduce pension benefits for new state employees, start a 401(k)-style plan for the highest-paid among them and enrage the unions that help many Albany lawmakers get elected.
It was the culmination of years of effort to rein in exploding pension costs for New York’s state and local governments. And when it finally passed, after an extraordinary two hours of arm-twisting from the dead of night into dawn, both sides agreed on one thing: The vote was so difficult, no one will be able to touch state pensions again anytime soon.
“This is a difficult issue as a matter of politics,” Cuomo said. “I don’t anticipate any additional legislation in the near future.”
“I’ve listened to some people carp and say, ‘Well, the governor didn’t get everything he asked for,’ ” Bloomberg said. “If the governor got everything he asked for, he wasn’t asking for enough. It’s time that we sit back and take a quick victory lap, and then get back to work.”
The governor and the mayor were happy to have achieved a law they say will generate $80 billion in savings over 30 years. Unions, however, are furious— and are threatening to use their political clout in response.
“Before we go into primaries and endorsements and elections, we want to take a look at who are our friends,” said Danny Donohue, president of CSEA, the largest state workers’ union, which is suspending all endorsements and contributions.
“People have told us they voted in tears for this. We would have preferred that they did not vote in tears but instead did what was right,” Donohue said. “A lot of people are going to have to answer for what they did.”
Norman Seabrook, president of the New York City Corrections Officers’ Benevolent Association, said neither Cuomo nor his staff had consulted with him as the pension deal was crafted— which he said was tantamount to circumventing democracy.
“Governing is making a collective body for people to come together on what’s going to move the state forward, and I think that by his doing it this way, he is showing more of a dictatorship than being a responsible leader,” Seabrook said. “In my opinion, that is not the way to govern.”
While the Republican-led Senate passed the reforms relatively easily, the Assembly’s Democratic majority had a difficult time delivering the votes of its members, which Speaker Sheldon Silver had promised in exchange for passing other bills including a redistricting plan.
As darkness turned into dawn and a half-dozen members dozed in leather chairs, the vote totals on the big board in the Assembly chamber fluctuated for two hours. Jim Yates, the counsel to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, worked in person to win support; the governor’s office did so with phone calls.
The room was mostly silent. Almost no one was reading the legislation.
“I would think that a Democratic governor, with all the power he has, could get the 76 votes he needs to get the bill passed from his Democratic conference,” Republican Assemblyman James Tedisco said, drawing out the words as he stared up at the board.
Assembly Republicans, angered about being shut out of the process, voted against the amendment, although many of them supported it in principle. Some who planned to vote “Yes” waited hours to cast votes—reluctant to be the ones to give the bill its final passage; for political reasons; and in some cases, out of anger.
“Yesterday they called me a flunky of the unions in the New York Post,” Assemblyman Joe Lentol said after voting for the reforms. “Tomorrow I’ll be a tool of the governor.”
By the time the bill finally passed, Assemblywomen Nicole Malliotakis and Aileen Gunther had changed their early “No” votes to “Yes.”
Labor leaders remain angry and say the governor—who kept them in line during his first year of budget cuts and a round of tough new contracts for state workers—has finally worn out his welcome with them.
“This is a principled issue for us, and I’m proud of the unity and solidarity we showed,” said Mario Cilento, president of the New York State AFL-CIO.
And if unions are suddenly unwilling to work with Cuomo anymore—much less support a governor who has enjoyed wide popularity—the picture has shifted even more win New York City, where unions whose contracts have expired are unlikely to cut any new deals with Bloomberg and will wait until his successor takes office in 2014.
“I don’t know if things will be better,” said Stephen Cassidy, president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association of Greater New York. “I don’t have a crystal ball. I do hear the same things, that people are not willing to negotiate with the mayor’s team.”
Tags: AFL-CIO, Aileen Gunther, Albany, Andrew Cuomo, assembly, COBA, corrections, CSEA, Danny Donohue, democratic, firefighters, James Tedisco, Jim Yates, joe-lentol, Mario Cilento, Michael Bloomberg, New York Post, Nicole Malliotakis, Norman seabrook, pension, pension reform, Republican, retirement, Senate, Sheldon Silver, Stephen Cassidy, Uniformed Firefighters Association, Unions
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