Spin Cycle

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Faddish fiscal phrases fly on pension payment plan

The most fashionable of fiscal slogans and buzz-phrases are 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 year-to-year over a long period. One supporter of such a change, who suggested it last summer, is Sen. Jack Martins (R-Mineola), who said he’s heard supportive reactions from local school officials.

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

Skyrocketing pension rates are “the number-one concern of local officials who must meet thise enormous obligations while complying with our new tax cap,” said Martins, former mayor of Mineola.

After Cuomo and the Legislature enacted a cheaper Tier 6 pension for new employees, one of the putdowns from critics was that it didn’t qualify as real mandate relief because the savings wouldn’t be seen for many years, until these lesser-compensated new employees begin to retire.

So the governor, essentially, argues in favor of cashing in early on those future savings. Under this plan, Tier 6 would indeed begin to look like the treasured goal of mandate relief.

Critics of the proposal -- a curious mix of political conservatives and liberal Democrats -- see it more as mandate delay than mandate relief – a mere gimmick to defer costs.

They have a cliché 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?” asked Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner, who happens to be co-chairman under Cuomo of the state Democratic Party. “We might simply be financing another liability that we will not be able to pay.”

New York City’s pension funds would be unaffected, but Mayor Michael Bloomberg was asked about it anyway and said: “As a general policy, postponing, down the road, expenses that you are going to have every year is not a good policy.” (Not that the city always resisted deferring pension costs.)

For State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, the state’s sole pension-fund trustee, who can nix the plan, the phrase du jour is “serious concerns” about funding levels. He has denied that he opposes the idea, or that he’s criticizing Cuomo, but of course, voicing “serious concerns” is not synonymous with “Hey, why didn’t I think of that?”

Now that “mandate-relief,” “kicking-the-can,” and “serious concerns” permeate the air, maybe “hard bargaining” and “compromise plan” will be next.

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