Session wrap: could have been worse

by Ken Girardin |  | NY Torch

new-york-state-senateThe best news to come out of the final days of the 2016 legislative session may have concerned what didn’t pass.

Several bills that would have added to the already heavy taxpayer burden in New York failed to make it to the finish line before the Legislature adjourned June 18. The could-have-been-worse category included measures spotlighted in this space over the past six months:

  • Lawmakers introduced at least two dozen bills designed to weaken the state’s five-year-old local property tax cap, which has been targeted in particular by teachers’ unions and public school groups unhappy with the tight, near-zero limit on tax hikes this year. None of the bills passed—but the assault on the cap is likely to continue in future sessions.
  • Senate Republicans re-introduced a measure that would have locked in tens of billions of dollars in unfunded retiree health coverage benefit costs for state and local governments. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Andrew Lanza of Staten Island, quickly was advanced earlier in the session from committee to the floor calendar, but ultimately died there.
  • bill that would have permitted New York City to use the cost-saving design-build contracting method—but only on projects that also included project labor agreements with unions—was not voted on, though it was introduced in both houses.
  • Another labor-backed bill, which would have forced projects backed with Industrial Development Agency (IDA) incentives to pay a state-estimated “prevailing wage,” also did not get voted on.
  • A costly and counterproductive measure that would have forced New Yorkers to buy heating oil containing biodiesel moved to the floor in the Senate but ultimately didn’t get a floor vote.

The bad

From the standpoint of cost, taxpayer equity and economic efficiency, the biggest end-of-session negative was a tax credit for music producers and video game developers. If signed by Governor Cuomo, state taxpayers will be subsidizing profitable entertainment ventures, including movies and TV shows, with up to $470 million per year in what are effectively cash payments.

While at least 13 bills increasing public pension benefits were introduced, only one major sweetener passed both houses. It rolled back part of the 2012 pension reforms by giving one group of employeesuniformed court officers in the pension system’s new Tier 6—the ability to retire at 62 instead of 63. This was a largely empty gesture, not only because Governor Cuomo has vetoed previous versions of the bill, but also because no one has yet vested in Tier 6. Going through the motions, though, is an expression of the Legislature’s indifference about the long-term liabilities that defined-benefit pensions saddle on to taxpayers. And it would open the door to every other group of public employees asking for the same thing.

The missed opportunities

At the same time, lawmakers left town without passing reforms that would have promoted economic growth and more efficient government. These included:

  • A bill streamlining SEQR, the state law that discourages commercial and residential development by overriding or adding red tape to local planning and zoning decisions. It was reported out of the Senate Environmental Conservation committee in early June, but didn’t even make it to the floor.
  • Solid fiscal and budget-making reforms proposed by state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli.
  • Improvements to the Freedom of Information Law that would allow a party to recover legal fees and court costs if they have to go to court to obtain public information.
  • A slew of local mandate relief measures, most of them addressing costly collective bargaining regulations, which (once again) were not even introduced by members in either party, in either house.

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