Two weeks after the state’s largest teachers union gave Senate Republicans a boost by endorsing their candidate in a critical special election race, Republican lawmakers fast-tracked a bill that would allow New York City teachers to retire with full benefits five years sooner than they can now.
The changes to the pension plan agreed to by the Legislature were a high priority for New York State United Teachers, the 585,000-member statewide labor organization that includes the United Federation of Teachers, which represents city educators.
In October, the Bloomberg administration consented to the pension sweetener in exchange for the adoption of a school-wide merit pay system linked to student test scores.
Albany, however, had final say concerning the approval of the retirement plan. After the mayor’s deal was struck, some members of the union expressed concern that the state Legislature would not immediately follow suit.
The Senate quietly passed the measure on Wednesday. It did not get much public attention, because that same day lawmakers announced with much fanfare an agreement with the New York Racing Association.
The Democrat-led Assembly, which had already passed the early retirement bill last year, voted for it again on Monday. Governor Spitzer is expected to sign the legislation.
Lawmakers and Albany observers interviewed said the timing of the Senate vote was an unusual departure from historical practice. Normally, the Legislature waits until the end of its session in June to deliver to the governor various pieces of legislation expanding pension benefits.
“Is the timing suspicious? Yeah, a little,” a fiscal analyst with the Manhattan Institute, E.J. McMahon, said. “Giving it to them early is a big favor to them. This is usually not done early in the session.” On January 28, the state teachers union announced it was endorsing Republican Assemblyman Will Barclay’s bid for an open Senate seat that will be decided in a special election on February 27. The race is viewed as a must-win for Majority Leader Joseph Bruno’s conference, which holds a fragile 32- to 29-seat advantage over the Senate Democrats.
Although the North Country district is predominantly Republican, Mr. Barclay is facing surprisingly heated competition from his Democratic challenger, Assemblyman Darrel Aubertine.
Union officials said they would set up a phone bank operation to call the 10,000 members in the district and urge them to vote for Mr. Barclay and would also mail endorsement pamphlets. The union said it favored the Republican because he had “demonstrated a commitment to public education.” Labor officials also said they objected to Mr. Aubertine’s support for school-choice measures, such as tax credits for private school families.
The bill passed by the Legislature on Wednesday would allow city teachers hired after 1973 to retire with full benefits at age 55 if they have accumulated at least 25 years of service. Under the current arrangement, teachers must log 30 years to earn a full pension, which is not subject to state or local taxes.
For years, the teachers union has lobbied aggressively for the pension change, which they viewed as especially crucial for its female members who took time off from work to raise children. Under the legislation, teachers who opt into the plan are required to pay 4.85% of salary for their first 10 years of work and 1.85% for the next 15 years.
New teachers would have to work 27 years to qualify. The current plan requires teachers to contribute 3% of their salary for their first decade and then nothing afterward.
It’s not clear what the ultimate cost of the early retirement provision would be for city taxpayers.
In announcing the agreement with the UFT, the Bloomberg administration said the costs of the benefits for early retirees would be balanced out by savings from the increased contributions and the replacement of more expensive senior teachers with a younger workforce.
The bill language, however, indicates that the city would incur an immediate $100 million cost in the first year the plan is made available, largely due to the retirement of senior teachers who are now eligible for full benefits. The language suggests the city would recoup the money in subsequent years.
In recent years, public pension costs have soared in New York, putting an increased strain on the city budget. From 2000 to 2005, tax-funded contributions to public pensions in the state increased to $6.7 billion from $1 billion, according to report by the Manhattan Institute’s Empire Center for Public Policy in Albany.
A spokesman for the Senate Republicans was not immediately available for comment yesterday evening. Another Republican senator declined to comment.
Read article here