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Limit overtime, unused sick time in calculating public pensions: New proposal

Assemb. Michael Fitzpatrick (R-St. James) on June 5,

Assemb. Michael Fitzpatrick (R-St. James) on June 5, 2014. Credit: James Escher

ALBANY -- A legislative proposal aimed at the heart of Albany power seeks to address the increase in six-figure public pensions by barring the use of overtime pay and unused sick time and vacation days in their calculation.

Current pensioners wouldn't see any cuts under the proposal, but the measure, which will be introduced later this week as an Assembly bill, would seek those limits in calculating the pensions of hundreds of thousands of current state, local and school employees.

The sponsor, Assemb. Michael Fitzpatrick (R-St. James), knows he is in uncharted territory. Public unions wield great power with the State Legislature, which has regularly sought to sweeten the pensions for public workers. Lawmakers also receive substantial campaign contributions and support from the unions.

"All the elected officials are in the pension, too," Fitzpatrick said. "That's why you don't solve any problems up here. But if we don't deal with the structure's cost drivers . . . we are going to continue to see the state die."

Fitzpatrick is part of the Republican minority conference in the Assembly, with little power to push a bill to the floor for debate. The Assembly's Democratic majority has long opposed such measures and had no comment on Fitzpatrick's proposal.

Governments and schools, which pay the employer's share of public pensions, say their rising costs have sapped reserves and pushed them toward insolvency. The state has enacted less generous public pensions for more recently hired workers, but significant savings are decades away.

Former Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, who now is executive director of the Center for Cost Effective Government public advocacy group, said the bill is prompted by a March article in Newsday. It reported that 90 retired government workers and teachers statewide are eligible to collect more than $200,000 a year in pensions. More than a quarter of the 90 retirees worked on Long Island. In all, nearly 8,000 retirees statewide are eligible to collect in excess of $100,000 a year.

The article "identified just how out of control the overtime padding is," Levy said. "It is simply unsustainable."

Although considered a long shot, the effort turned some heads in Albany. "It would be a very bold step and reap a very significant savings," said E.J. McMahon, president of the conservative Empire Center for New York State Policy.

The state comptroller's office, which operates the public pension system, said the proposed changes would require an amendment to the state constitution, which protects workers from cuts to their pensions.

Overtime pay is already limited in calculating pension benefits, according to the comptroller's office, ranging from 20 percent of base salary in the original pension tier to 10 percent or a dollar figure limit in more recent pension tiers.

"People want to think that people are taking advantage of the system, but they really need to look at the facts," said Steven Madarasz, spokesman for the Civil Service Employees Association Union. He said the average public pension is less than $20,000. That includes a large segment of workers who worked at low rates and for short periods.

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