Scaffold law reform ad heaps praise on Cuomo

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (Nov. 28, 2012)

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (Nov. 28, 2012) (Credit: Howard Schnapp)

The car radio is tuned to a news station and you hear a male voice launch into a commercial.

"Governor Cuomo is helping lead New York in the right direction," the narrator exclaims, "working to create jobs and cut taxes, making New York more competitive."

Wow, you think. It is only January of an election year for statewide offices, and they're already campaigning.


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Well, you figure, Andrew M. Cuomo has the funds to start early. Just this week, it was disclosed that the Democratic governor had $33 million on hand for his re-election effort.

Oh, but wait. The ad's narrator is changing course.

"We need more reforms," he says next. "Like changing the outdated scaffold law. Our unfair scaffold law drives up property taxes and rent for every New Yorker. Because of the scaffold law, the cost of public projects like the Tappan Zee Bridge and local schools is skyrocketing."

It is striking to hear explicit praise for a re-election-seeking incumbent as a preface to a so-called issue ad. It sounds starkly different from the 1199/SEIU attack ads against health care cuts in 2007 that helped drive down then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer's approval ratings.

Under the circumstances, this honey-rather-than-vinegar approach seems to make strategic sense, several consultants said.

The broadcast ads are sponsored by a coalition that includes construction contractors. The consulting firm Mercury Public Affairs worked on the newest radio spot; Michael McKeon, a Mercury partner, has directed Republicans for Cuomo.

But on the opposite side is Gary LaBarbera, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council, which includes unionized construction workers. LaBarbera, who wants the law left alone, helped lead the former Committee to Save New York -- which campaigned for Cuomo's first-term agenda.

Electoral politics aside, the issue has percolated in Albany for many years.

New York first enacted a scaffold law in the 19th century to ensure construction workers' safety. The radio ad's sponsors, a group called "Get NY Building," argues that the scaffold law nowadays forces contractors and property owners to pay skyrocketing insurance costs by imposing complete liability for "gravity-related" injuries -- even if a worker was at fault, say by being drunk or flouting safety rules.

Mike Elmendorf, president of the Associated General Contractors of New York State, says the scaffold law's provisions hinder construction of pre-K units and other school space. "These things would be significantly advanced by reforming the law," Elmendorf said.

Others insist the law gives contractors an incentive to make worksites safe and broadly deny the critics' claims. Paul Fernandes, the trades council's chief of staff, said Thursday: "Weakening the scaffold law [in New York] won't create jobs, as demonstrated in Illinois, which repealed its scaffold law in 1995 and has lost 35,000 construction jobs since then, while New York has gained 60,000.

"And the law only holds owners and contractors liable for injuries when they are caused by their failure to provide adequate safety for work at heights."

Anyway, in case you needed proof that Cuomo enjoys a huge election advantage, consider that the lobbyists on both sides of this fight seem invested in his good graces.