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McMahon: Triborough blocks fiscal sanity

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New York's K-12 education spending has a recent "historical pattern" of increasing 5.3 percent a year, according to the state Education Department. But that pattern was established before Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo capped state school aid growth at 4 percent and gave local taxpayers long-overdue protection in the form of a voter-controlled 2 percent cap on school property tax increases.

Obviously, something's got to give here. School districts urgently need to control salaries and fringe benefits, which typically compose three-quarters of their budgets. But when school officials try to negotiate savings with teacher unions, they run into a statutory roadblock known as the Triborough Amendment.

Triborough mandates that all provisions of public employee union contracts -- including automatic "step" increases in salaries -- must remain in effect even after contracts expire. It affects every level of government in New York, but none more than school districts. That's because teachers spend most of their careers moving up annual pay steps -- and crossing over to higher-paid lanes for earning postgraduate credits.

Small wonder, then, that teacher pay defied the laws of economic and fiscal gravity in a severe downturn. In two school years following the recession's onset at the end of 2007, a period of widespread salary freezes and cuts in the private sector, the median salary for teachers with 11 to 15 years of experience rose by 7 percent in school districts outside New York City, according to state education data.

Since a single step can translate into a 3 percent raise, even base pay "freezes" don't halt growth in payroll expenses. Thanks to Triborough, unions find it easier to sit on their contracts and resist meaningful concessions in skyrocketing fringe-benefit costs.

The Triborough Amendment is rooted in a 1972 labor board ruling in a contract dispute involving Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority toll collectors. That case gave rise to a rule known as the Triborough Doctrine, which held that the core terms and conditions in an expired contract must stay in effect until a new contract is negotiated. In 1977, the doctrine was modified by the State Court of Appeals to exclude step increases.

That pro-taxpayer precedent held only until 1982, when the legislature responded to union lobbying by passing the Triborough Amendment -- which lame-duck Gov. Hugh Carey signed over the objections of his own budget staff.

Local governments and school officials have complained about the law ever since. With last year's enactment of the tax cap, calls for Triborough reform naturally have taken on added urgency.

Defending the amendment, Richard Iannuzzi of New York State United Teachers has described Triborough as "a trade-off for labor peace" -- implying it was enacted to compensate unions for the state's ban on public-sector strikes. But public employees in New York never had a right to strike. The real "trade-off for labor peace" was the 1967 enactment of the Taylor Law, which authorized public-sector unionization and collective bargaining.

Unions also claim that repealing the amendment would allow employers to unilaterally slash pay and benefits -- when, in fact, such basic terms of employment would remain protected under the pre-existing Triborough Doctrine.

So far, Cuomo and most state lawmakers are ignoring this issue -- which might be more easily understandable if we were living in a normal fiscal environment. But as a top school board lobbyist testified before the legislature this week, "local school officials recognize that 'normal' is not coming back."

It's about time our state's leaders recognized the same thing.

E.J. McMahon is senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute's Empire Center for New York State Policy.