Debate over pension plan has familiar ring

Left: New York State Senator Jack Martins is

Left: New York State Senator Jack Martins is among the co-hosts of a hearing on the state's property tax in Mineola. (Feb. 17, 2011)
Right: Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner addresses her supporters in Syracuse after her victorious campaign. (Nov. 3, 2009) (Credit: Howard Schnapp, AP)

Dan Janison

Melville. N.Y. Tuesday January 26, 2010. Daniel Janison, Dan Janison

Dan Janison has been a reporter at Newsday for 10

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The trendiest of fiscal slogans and buzz-phrases are now flying over Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's proposal to quickly reduce pension expenses for local governments and school districts.

Cuomo would cut the required payments by allowing these localities to start paying a flat percentage of costs year-to-year over a long period. One supporter of such a change, who suggested it last summer, is State Sen. Jack Martins (R-Mineola), who said he's heard support from local officials.

Which brings us to the first battle-cry: "Mandate relief!"

Skyrocketing pension contributions are "the number one concern of local officials who must meet these enormous obligations while complying with our new tax cap," said Martins, former mayor of Mineola.

After Cuomo and the legislature last year enacted a cheaper Tier 6 pension for new employees, some said it didn't qualify as real mandate relief because the savings wouldn't be seen for many years -- until, that is, these new Tier 6 employees began to retire.

So the governor now seems to be arguing in favor of cashing in early on those future savings. Under this plan, Tier 6 would seem to fit the widely invoked goal of mandate relief.

But critics of the proposal, who seem to include a curious political mix of fiscal conservatives and liberals, see it more as mandate delay than mandate relief -- a mere gimmick to defer costs.

They have a cliche of their own to shout back: "Kicking the can down the road!"

"How do we know this plan is viable 25 years down the line?" Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner, who happens to be co-chairman under Cuomo of the state Democratic Party, asked at a fiscal hearing. "We might simply be financing another liability that we will not be able to pay."

New York City's pension funds are separate, but Mayor Michael Bloomberg said of Cuomo's plan: "As a general policy, postponing down the road expenses that you are going to have every year is not a good policy."

For state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, the state's sole pension-fund trustee, who's empowered to stop the plan, the phrase du jour is "serious concerns." He has denied that he opposes the idea, or that he's criticizing Cuomo. But "serious concerns" about funding levels does not exactly mean the same as, "Hey, why didn't I think of that?"

Now that "mandate-relief," "kicking-the-can," and "serious concerns" are in the air, maybe "hard bargaining" and "compromise plan" come next.