Cuomo’s secret SUNY deal

by Ken Girardin |  | NY Torch

Earlier this year, Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed a new disclosure standard requiring that details of proposed government union contracts be shared with the public before ratification.

Unfortunately—and not for the first time—the governor has failed to meet the standard himself.

Cuomo announced late last week that he had reached a six-year deal with United University Professions (UUP), the third-largest union of state employees. Most of the 36,000 people represented by UUP work for State University (SUNY), including faculty members and hospital workers. But the terms of the proposed deal, not to mention the draft agreement itself, weren’t included in the governor’s press release.

Under legislation proposed by Cuomo less than six months ago to “comprehensively reform” the state Freedom of Information Law (FOIL), that lack of disclosure wouldn’t fly.

Part G of “Good Government and Ethics Reform” bill packaged with Cuomo’s Executive Budget would have amended FOIL to require that public-sector collective bargaining agreements:

shall be made available to the public no later than when such proposed terms are sent to members of the employee organization for ratification, when such terms are presented to the employer for ratification, where applicable, or when the provisions of such agreement requiring approval by the appropriate legislative body pursuant to section two hundred four-a of the civil service law are submitted to such body, whichever date is earliest.

UUP members were able to begin reviewing the contract today on the “members only” section of their website. However, as of mid-afternoon, neither the governor’s office nor SUNY had made the contract available to the public.

This isn’t a new practice for New York’s governors, nor is it limited to just state-level deals. State and local officials alike have a long-standing tradition of conducting labor negotiations behind closed doors and announcing—and even adopting—labor agreements before the public can weigh in.

Secretive deals often lead to bad outcomes, as the Empire Center has documented previously. In Johnson City, a village outside Binghamton, trustees rushed through a 2008 pact for which the board made a math error that gave firefighters 41-percent raises, necessitating layoffs. That same year, a deal between the Utica school district and its teachers’ union slammed taxpayers with millions of dollars in new unfunded liabilities for decades to come—and was hidden from the public for days after the school board had adopted it. More recently, the 2016 contract between the Buffalo school district and its teachers union—retroactive to 2004—hiked costs by tens of millions of dollars but wasn’t shown to the public until after the board had adopted it.

In these cases, the union benefited from hiding the proposals from public criticism because they were bad deals for the taxpayers.

In the latest case, UUP also has an interest in minimizing the time its own members can see the deal. The union represents a disparate group of people with discrete, and competing, interests—positions ranging from hospital workers to lifeguards to professors—which are often in direct competition for state funding. Even among SUNY faculty, tension exists between the interests of tenure-track professors and adjuncts, where full- and part-timers have separate concerns.

There’s a possibility some UUP constituencies will see others as bigger winners, and UUP members may soon be free to do more than just vent on Twitter: if the U.S. Supreme Court rules in Janus v. AFSCME that people can’t be forced to pay government unions to keep their jobs, UUP-represented workers may choose not to keep paying the union one percent of their gross pay.

State government labor contracts typically require the enactment of enabling legislation, meaning the people’s representatives will still have a say (even though lawmakers haven’t rejected one such deal in modern history). But taxpayers still can’t see what the state put on the table in these talks, which informs how much future deals with other unions may cost.

Governor Cuomo took a big step in the right direction by proposing FOIL changes to make the results of labor negotiations public. These deals involve public money and can commit taxpayers to paying costs long after the officials who vote for them have left office.

The governor should now lead by example. He should immediately disclose the terms of the UUP deal—and publicly insist that all future negotiations take place in public view.

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- Ken Girardin is the Policy Analyst at the Empire Center for Public Policy.