Does anybody read the NYS Constitution anymore? Last week in the dead of night, the NYS Legislature addressed a number of bills on Assembly and Senate redistricting, a DNA database, casino gambling, performance evaluations for educators, the establishment of the independent redistricting commission, and pension reform. All but one was passed with a simple majority of 36 votes. There is, however, a problem the governor, Senate Republicans and New York’s media insists upon ignoring: there was no quorum for the Tier VI pension vote.
No matter how you slice it, pensions (and reform of pension formula) are state appropriations. Article 3, Section 23 of the New York State Constitution requires a 3/5 quorum for “any act which imposes, continues or revives a tax, or creates a debt or charge, or makes, continues or revives any appropriation of public or trust money or property.” Last week’s pension vote garnered 32 “ayes” and 5 “nays.” The governor and Senate Republicans are pretending that all they needed was a simple majority of the 62-member Senate. Wrong. They needed 38 votes.
It’s not that Senate Republicans didn’t know. State Sen. Daniel Squadron addressed the issue of lack of quorum. He was overruled.
State Sen. John Sampson has been pilloried relentlessly in local media for engineering his caucus walkout that denied the quorum. But Sampson was protecting the interests of New York State taxpayers. Gov. Cuomo orchestrated the late-night votes under the constitutional “message of necessity.” Under that process, the normal three-calendar legislative days necessary for legislative and public scrutiny was waived. Therefore, no one knew the details of the more than 40-page pension reform bill until after the fact.
The stated purpose of the pension reform bill is to rein in burdensome retirement benefits for New York State government workers by saving New York State taxpayers approximately $80 billion over the next 30 years. The governor has been touting his pension reform as “his latest step in restoring fiscal discipline to New York and ensuring our state remains on sound financial footing for years to come.” There are elements embedded in the legislation, however, which would strengthen the executive powers of Gov. Cuomo and Mayor Bloomberg. Both executives would have the power to unilaterally approve full early retirement benefits starting at age 57 for nonuniformed workers with 30 years’ experience. The impacted unions must agree that their membership must bear the cost. The legislature, which is normally charged with approving changes to the pension system, would have no say at all. History has shown that state pension fund managers don’t usually meet the average rate of return of 7.5%. As usual, taxpayers will fund the difference.
With the governor and the mayor having the ability to unilaterally grant pension enhancements, there would be no point to unions and other concerned citizens to lobbying their legislators. All allegiance would go to the executive branch.
The entire middle-of-the-night process did not sit well with the NYS Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA). CSEA President Danny Donohue declared, “CSEA will immediately suspend all state political endorsements and contributions,” while accusing the governor, Senate Republicans and Assembly Democrats of “trading the future retirement security of working New Yorkers for legislative redistricting lines.” Calling out the “disrespect and disenfranchisement of working people by our state’s elected officials,” Donohue stated “New Yorkers should understand that lawmakers’ actions did not result from meaningful debate and good judgment – it resulted from political expediency – and it will have harmful consequences to people and communities now and for a long time to come.”
In addition to the pension debacle, there is serious concern about the backroom deal establishing seven casinos in New York State, which in addition to the racetrack in Queens and upstate Indian casinos, would as a spokesman for Sen. Sampson put it, “would make New York State the gambling capital of the East and open the floodgates for organized crime.”
Gov. Cuomo also approved the state Senate and Assembly district lines. The governor had assured New York citizens that he would veto any redistricting plan that did not come from an independent commission. Yet, he went along with the lines drawn by Senate Republicans including a questionable 63rd Senate District in the Albany region. The Senate Minority Conference is challenging that 63rd seat in court.
Instead of having state district lines drawn by an independent redistricting commission, what New York State citizens received is a proposed Senate Republican constitutional amendment that would bring back prison-based gerrymandering and population formulas that could easily give one region more than its fair share of districts while leaving another region underrepresented. Requiring votes in two successive legislative sessions and a public referendum, there is no guarantee that by the next census in New York State would have a truly independent redistricting commission.
NYS voters should also know: As per Republican Majority Leader Dean Skelos’ instructions, 311 bills due for debate and vote within their respective committees were pulled and placed in the Senate Rules Committee, where it is unlikely they will see the light of day before the legislative session ends in June. Dean Skelos chairs the Rules committee. Under the two years of Democratic control, Sen. Sampson enacted a rule allowing any senator to introduce a bill in committee, with the proviso that the bill would be debated within committee during a 45-day period. Those 311 bills yanked from consideration include the Reproductive Health Act, the Dream Act, and a gun “microstamp” bill. Senate Democrats see the Republican ploy as a means to stifle debate.
Lastly, Skelos has decided to retain the state primary date in September, rather than June when the congressional primary will be held, costing taxpayers $200 million and possibly suppressing the vote.