Remember when President Obama in his inaugural address spoke of “the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job”? He apparently wasn’t talking about public employee unions in New York — state and teacher — who would rather see large-scale layoffs for their members than give up any of their contractual goodies. Those include salaries that now exceed those of private employees in similar jobs (way back when, civil servants accepted low salaries in return for job security), as well as pension and health benefits that greatly exceed the private standard.
It was becoming clear that the whole thing was unsustainable even before the current economic crisis, and now it is obvious for all to see. Personnel is by far the biggest cost for governments and school districts, and that cost must be brought under control or else it will bankrupt us.
One extreme example is the ridiculously expensive Blue Cross Blue Shield health insurance plan (the subject of a story in Sunday's Gazette) that a number of school districts in Fulton and Montgomery counties provide for their teachers. This baby costs upwards of $25,000 per year for family coverage, roughly double last year’s national average of $12,680. Employees pay a little more in premiums for the plan, which eliminates deductibles and co-pays after a very short time, but taxpayers pay a whole lot more.
Switching to a lower-cost plan would allow the districts to avoid large-scale layoffs (the only other alternative is a 20 percent tax increase), but that would require cooperation from the teachers union. And so far the districts aren’t getting it. So much for Obama’s shared sacrifice. Many private and public employees elsewhere have been giving up benefits or reducing their hours or accepting lower salaries to save colleagues’ jobs, but not in Fulton or Montgomery counties.
And not in New York state, where the unions would rather see 9,000 of their members laid off than accept the one-week furloughs and lag pay that Gov. Paterson called for to help close a $17 billion deficit. They also beat back his modest plan to establish another tier for new employees, where they would contribute more toward their pensions and have to wait until age 62 to start collecting them.
These very generous salaries and benefits are what school boards and legislatures like to refer to at budget time as “contractual obligations” — as if they were something totally outside their control, when in fact they and their predecessors are the ones who granted them.
Now that they want to scale back the goodies closer to what employees in the rest of the world get, they find themselves stymied by the state’s Taylor Law, which requires them to negotiate any changes with the union. And, most notoriously, by the Triboro Amendment, which takes away unions’ incentive to negotiate by keeping the existing contract in force after it lapses, with all the benefits, including automatic increments, step increases, etc. No other state is known to have such a law, which tilts the negotiation process so sharply in favor of the union, at such great cost to the taxpayers.
The Suozzi Commission on Property Tax Reform called for repeal of the Triboro Amendment as a means of controlling skyrocketing school costs, and the attendant taxes. It should be eliminated for all public employees.