Cuomo should think beyond arbitration cap

Governor Andrew Cuomo gives his State of the Governor Andrew Cuomo gives his State of the State message in the Convention Center of the Empire State Plaza in Albany. (Jan. 9, 2013) Photo Credit: Albany Times Union

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Joye Brown Newsday columnist Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006. She joined the newspaper in 1983 and has ...

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's proposal to tinker with the state's binding arbitration process in order to slow the growth of public salaries doesn't guarantee success.

He's right to examine the Taylor Law, which governs the process. And he's right again in insisting that a municipality's ability to pay plays a larger role. But there are ways to slow growth other than by capping salaries for the public employee unions, mostly representing police, that are eligible for binding arbitration.

Cuomo's proposal would put limits on arbitration settlements only in so-called fiscally distressed municipalities. Oddly, the list of troubled communities released by the governor's office did not include Nassau County, which has been overseen by a state fiscal oversight panel for more than a decade.

While Cuomo criticized unions, on Long Island, public officials have been part of the problem too, especially in Nassau. Many have been willing to agree to the process so that arbitrators -- rather than unions or elected officials themselves -- could be blamed for the outcome.

Most public contracts do not go to binding arbitration, although the most expensive, for law enforcement unions, often do. But even when the rare contract is resolved instead at the negotiating table -- as was the police contract in Suffolk County last year -- public officials complain publicly about being forced to vote for expensive agreements they don't like because the pact could have generated even higher costs at arbitration.

Cuomo's proposal generally would cap salary increases in arbitration agreements at 2 percent. But the parties don't have to go to arbitration. They could agree at the negotiating table to salary hikes higher than that.

For taxpayers, eye-popping binding arbitration awards followed by storms of public criticism have made the system a bogeyman. It doesn't have to be that way.

For one, Cuomo could recommend amending the law so that ability to pay, which already is supposed to be factor in the process, gets substantially more weight in the binding arbitration process -- not just for distressed communities, but for all.

He might also recommend making it harder for municipalities and unions to agree to long-term contracts during tough economic times.

He also could mainline fiscal sanity into the proceedings by recommending that a third party -- an accounting firm or maybe the state comptroller's office -- verify a single set of fiscal numbers to be used in the proceedings. As it is, the only information arbitrators have access to is that supplied by the union and the municipality, which may -- or may not -- bear any relation to reality.

Distressed municipalities -- and that includes Nassau -- need as much support as they can get. Every New York community does. Injecting more fiscal reality into every union-municipal negotiation, particularly during hard times, would be a good start.

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