Under a law approved in the final days of this year’s legislative session, New York State United Teachers’ elected officers will, for the first time, be able to simultaneously accrue time toward their state and private union pensions.

The law, signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo last month, allows NYSUT officers to accrue time toward their pensions through the state Teacher Retirement System while serving as union leaders. More specifically, it lets school districts offer paid leaves of absence to teachers who vacate their classroom positions to work for the union, while NYSUT reimburses the district for the officers’ salaries and benefits.

After NYSUT officers serve for five years, they become vested in the union’s private pension system, spokesman Carl Korn said. Therefore, officers could eventually be earning time toward both—a benefit former NYSUT president Richard Iannuzzi said is inappropriate.

“I would not have supported putting [the new law] forward,” Iannuzzi told Capital on Tuesday. “I think the officers have to make a decision whether they’re going to get credit for years within the NYSUT pension system or T.R.S., but I would not have been comfortable with being able to get credit for [the same] year in both.

“I got credit for my 34 years of teaching [through T.R.S.], but my credit in the NYSUT pension system started after that time, and that’s my understanding of the way it was for all officers before me and during my term,” Iannuzzi said. “That’s probably the appropriate way to function.”

Korn said the law was a technical amendment. An existing 1972 law allowed officers in local teachers unions to continue accruing time toward their public pensions, but the language was unclear as to whether the same benefit applied to officers of NYSUT, a statewide organization. The law now explicitly applies to “statewide affiliates” as well as their local member unions.

“The question was raised of whether NYSUT was a local employee organization,” Korn said, referring to the original wording of the law. “There was ambiguity. This was a technical bill that added the statewide organization.”

He said other statewide public employee unions have the same benefit, including the Public Employees Federation and Civil Service Employees Association.

The Legislature considered the bill at the same time Cuomo and lawmakers were negotiating changes to the state’s teacher-evaluation system. The bill was introduced in early June, when Cuomo’s office was engaged in closed-door negotiations with NYSUTover changes to the rating system. The Assembly passed the pension bill on June 19, the same day Cuomo announced he had reached a deal with the union, and the Senate passed it the next day.

Korn said the pension bill was not part of the teacher evaluation deal. Cuomo’s office did not return a request for comment.

Korn didn’t specify the origin of the legislation, which was sponsored by Senator John Flanagan, a Long Island Republican who chairs the chamber’s education committee, and Assemblyman Peter Abatte, a Brooklyn Democrat. Neither sponsor immediately returned a request for comment.

Korn said NYSUT leaders supported the legislation, which he remembers emerging in “late spring.”

NYSUT president Karen Magee was elected to lead the union in April. Iannuzzi, who was ousted after serving as president for nine years, said the bill did not surface during his administration.

“The bill was never put forward during my nine years as president,” he said. “I would not have supported putting it forward.”

Given that NYSUT holds elections every three years, the law could provide some security for new officers who are not yet vested in the union’s pension system. Without this law, NYSUT officers who stop accruing time toward their state pensions would risk not serving long enough at NYSUT to be vested in the union’s pension system.

Korn said he didn’t know if NYSUT’s elected officials would seek to take advantage of the new benefit, although he said some might. He said the law creates no costs to taxpayers, school districts or NYSUT.

E.J. McMahon, president of the Empire Center, a fiscally conservative think tank, criticized the new law, particularly since it allows union officials to earn pensions through both systems at the same time.

“Why wouldn’t they attempt to do it?” McMahon said. “There are undoubtedly retired NYSUT officers who are collecting teacher pensions and NYSUT pensions; they just never before had the benefit of qualifying for both at the same time.”

© 2014 Capital New York

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