Credit: TMS illustration/Michael Osbun

Former minority leader of the State Assembly and Republican candidate for governor in 2006, Faso is a partner in the law firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips.

 

Collective bargaining for public employees -- and the brawl over it in Wisconsin -- has gotten a lot of national attention lately, but the topic is pertinent here in New York State, too.

Just-released Census Bureau data show that, despite a small gain in population overall, New York has lagged the rest of the nation in growth. More than 1.5 million New Yorkers have fled the state in the past decade. Those who replaced them -- often immigrants -- earn about 20 percent less than those who left, making our economic situation worse.

Which brings us to collective bargaining. State government in Albany has routinely added benefits for public unions -- often in response to their political strength and contributions. Over the past 50 years, governors and legislatures of both parties have imposed costly new mandates on local governments and school districts to enhance union negotiating positions.

Drastic reforms are needed, and they can only come from action in Albany.

First, New York must overhaul its approach to providing health insurance to public-sector employees. Many school and local government workers in New York pay nothing for health insurance -- something unheard of in the private sector. By contrast, most state government employees participate in the New York State Health Insurance Program, paying 10 percent for individual and 25 percent for family coverage. The overall cost of this plan is far less than those covering most localities and school districts.

If Albany acted to remove health insurance from collective bargaining and put all local government and school district employees into NYSHIP, taxpayers would save hundreds of millions of dollars statewide -- without diminishing health coverage for workers. Pensions are not subject to collective bargaining, since it's much more practical to deal with these on a statewide basis, and health insurance should be the same.

Second, Albany needs to repeal the notorious Triborough law, which guarantees that all terms of a public employee contract continue upon expiration. This gives unions no incentive to negotiate changes in costly benefits, especially in times of economic distress, when such changes are so sorely needed. Unions know they'll continue to receive longevity pay increases and full benefits, even when their contracts expire.

Triborough also enshrines foolish benefits. Elective cosmetic surgery for public school teachers in Buffalo, for instance, makes up more than 10 percent of all their health insurance expenses, costing Buffalo taxpayers over $9 million per year. The unions won't give up this outrageous benefit unless they get something in return, but Buffalo, in severe economic distress, has nothing to give. Triborough silently picks taxpayer pockets.

Third, the teacher discipline process is in dire need of reform. Currently, teachers accused of incompetence or moral turpitude get full pay and benefits -- as do the substitutes who take their place in the classroom -- while a process governed by state law often takes years to resolve cases. The unions have little incentive to expedite these cases: Unlike other arbitrations, they don't pay any of the costs. It, too, is a situation only Albany can fix, and the State Education Department is recommending such changes this year.

Finally, it's high time to end pension padding through use of overtime. This has been so well documented -- to much taxpayer outrage -- that it is incredible Albany hasn't ended it yet. Many uniformed services have collectively bargained that seniority is the basis for assigning overtime. The only purpose: to enable many to receive bigger pensions, which are calculated based on total pay in the final years on the job, not just on base salaries.

Add these policies together and you see why New York's property tax burden is 70 percent higher than the national average. It is essential that Albany pass reforms to level the bargaining strength between public unions and their employers. The alternative is a state where businesses and people continue to flee.

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