New Report Spotlights “Trouble With Triborough”

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The case against New York’s 30-year-old “Triborough Amendment,” whose repeal has been a mandate relief priority of local and school officials throughout the state, is laid out in a new report issued today by the Empire Center for Public Policy.

Entitled Triborough Trouble, the report explains how the law requires public employers to maintain all contractual perks for unionized public employees, including automatic “step” increases in pay, after the expiration of a union contract. Key findings include the following:

The Triborough Amendment gives unions an incentive to resist negotiating structural changes to their contracts, since the status quo will be preserved even if there is no contract.

Pay hikes required by the Triborough Amendment cost the state government $140 million a year and add almost $300 million a year to school budgets.

The requirement to finance automatic pay increases has undermined attempts to stretch taxpayer dollars further in a time of extreme financial stress.

Repeal of the Triborough Amendment will establish a more equitable collective bargaining system in New York’s public sector, preserving basic union rights while giving local officials the tools they now lack to negotiate needed changes to costly and outmoded contracts.

Triborough Trouble notes that pay hikes guaranteed by the law can be particularly expensive for school districts, since teachers can spend much of their careers moving up pay steps and across lanes. Using the median Suffolk County teacher pay scale as an example, the report illustrates how a starting teacher can receive pay increases averaging 7 percent a year, even when base salaries are “frozen.”

Contrary to union claims, the report says, repeal of the Triborough Amendment would not expose union members to the unilateral reduction of health insurance or other important benefits. Rather, basic terms and conditions of employment would be protected by the underlying ‘Triborough Doctrine,” based on a state Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) ruling dating back to 1972.

The report also debunks claims by union leaders that the Triborough Amendment was a “trade-off” for the legal prohibition on public strikes. In fact, the report points out, public employee strikes have been outlawed in New York since the late 1940s. The prohibition continued, with reduced penalties, under the Taylor Law, enacted 15 years before the Triborough Amendment.

The report was written by E.J. McMahon, senior fellow at the Empire Center, and Terry O’Neil, one of the state’s foremost labor law experts, who heads the Garden City office of the law firm of Bond, Schoeneck & King.

Peter Baynes, executive director of the New York Conference of Mayors, said the Empire Center report “clearly and unequivocally demonstrates the inequities fostered by the Triborough Amendment.”

“Rather than protecting the sanctity of public contract negotiations, the Triborough Amendment makes a mockery of the concept of fair and balanced collective bargaining.” Baynes said. “By repealing the Triborough Amendment, but leaving intact the Triborough Doctrine, employees will be protected from unilateral reductions in benefits, and taxpayers will be protected from automatic increases in taxes.”

Timothy Kremer, executive director of the New York State Schools Boards Association, said: “The Triborough Amendment acts as a disincentive for unions to settle new contracts, especially in tough times when district officials are understandably seeking cost concessions. Why accept a new contract when the Triborough Amendment allows for an automatic salary increase while refusing to settle? The Triborough Amendment puts the district’s personnel budget on autopilot.”

Robert J. Reidy, Jr., executive director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, said: “The fundamental challenge for our schools now is to produce the learning our students need with the resources our taxpayers can provide. The state needs to be a reliable partner with local taxpayers in funding schools. But the state also needs to change some of its rules so that we can produce more impact for students with the resources the taxpayers give us. The Empire Center’s report helps explain why addressing Triborough is so important.”

Heather Briccetti, president and CEO of The Business Council of New York State, Inc. said: “This report clearly shows the need to repeal the Triborough Amendment. New York can no longer afford public employees’ pay to continue to increase under an expired contract, placing additional burdens on the state school districts and municipalities.”

Brian Sampson, executive director of Unshackle Upstate said: “The Triborough Amendment has long been an obstacle to making our communities more affordable because it guarantees pay increases and continued benefits – even if a contract is not in place. This creates a disincentive for representatives of state employees to come to the table and negotiate in good faith. Further, it ignores a community’s ability to pay, meaning that in these tough economic times, schools are forced instead to cut programs and eliminate teaching positions, and municipal government are curtailing services. It doesn’t have to be that way. It is time for our Legislature to do what is right for all taxpayers: Fix this issue so that we can maintain the integrity of the tax cap and we can continue to afford to live in New York.”