Filler: Albany legislator takes aim at unsustainable benefits

What do you do when the solutions are

What do you do when the solutions are obvious, but the possibility of adopting them seems tiny and distant? You start moving toward the goals, toward fixing the trouble, anyway. (Credit: iStock)

Lane Filler

Portrait of Newsday editorial board member Lane Filler Lane Filler

Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.

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What do you do when the solutions are obvious, but the possibility of adopting them seems tiny and distant?

You start moving toward the goals, toward fixing the trouble, anyway.

That's what Assemb. Michael Fitzpatrick (R-St. James) is doing with a new bill that addresses some of our toughest problems.

One problem is the increasing burden on municipal budgets caused by the spiraling costs of health care and pension benefits.

Another is the legally untouchable automatic raises for some public employees that continue even when contracts expire.

A third is the arbitrators' awards of pay increases higher and benefit contributions lower than are sustainable.

These are the real "unfunded mandates" making it so difficult for governments and districts across New York to stay within their budgets. The issue has been brought to a head by the state's 2 percent tax cap.

Now, one of three things can happen. Districts and municipalities can try to pass larger tax increases, which is very unpopular with voters; schools and governments can cut services; or major changes can be implemented.

The big aspects of Fitzpatrick's bill are to:

Rewrite the Triborough Amendment, which says work conditions of public employees may not be altered when their contracts run out, to limit the unalterable items to pay, health care benefits and vacations. Under Fitzpatrick's bill, automatic annual raises many public employees get even when working without a contract would no longer be a "work condition." Currently, those who get these automatic raises have little incentive to agree to new contracts that pinch generous benefits or don't promise ample (additional) pay increases.

Limit retirement eligibility for police officers and firefighters to those with 25 years experience who are at least age 50. The rule is generally 20 years of service, with no age limit.

Allow state and local employees to leave the state pension system and join a 401(k)-style defined contribution retirement plan. This was proposed last year but killed by the unions, which care less about employees who might want this portable retirement option than about maintaining their organizations' power.

Limit binding arbitration pay increases to 2 percent per year. The purpose of this is not necessarily to limit raises to 2 percent, but to encourage negotiated rather than arbitrated contracts.

Create a defined-contribution pension plan that replaces the pension for all newly hired and elected public employees. It's smart of Fitzpatrick to include himself and other elected officials.

These things need to be done. Given the tremendous power of public employee unions in New York, both at the voting booth and through political contributions, achieving them seems unthinkable.

But big things can change. A property-tax cap once seemed unthinkable. A Medicaid spending cap once seemed unthinkable. Same-sex marriage and equal rights for minorities and women once did, too.

Working to support Fitzpatrick's bill are former Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, who has founded the Center for Cost Effective Government, and taxpayer advocate Andrea Vecchio, with East Islip TaxPAC. The three are holding a rally on Tuesday, Jan. 28, at the state Legislative Office Building in Albany.

The status quo cannot be maintained. Implementing the solutions seems like such a distant dream. And all we can do is start walking.

Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.