On Tuesday, December 7, Assemblyman Michael Benjamin was asked to deliver a response to the Empire Center’s latest report, New York’s Exploding Pension Costs.
Text of Assemblyman Benjamin’s Response:
As an out-going Assembly Member, I was both surprised and pleased when E.J. McMahon invited me to participate today as a responder. I had already planned to be in the audience this morning because this issue of growing concern to me.
E.J. said he invited because I’m regarded by some Albany watchers as an “iconoclastic, free thinker.” That assessment differs from that of my more liberal colleagues who just regard me as a “pain-in-the-ass” contrarian. I like to say that “I’m not a liberal. And my other habits are good also.” I must thank Artemis Ward (via Peter G. Peterson) for that inspired line.
When I came to the Assembly in March 2003, we were 28 days away from the budget deadline. The next day after a particularly grueling Majority Conference discussion of various budget proposals, I told my new colleagues that during a restless night’s sleep I awoke to the realization that “all we do is move money around from one set of New Yorkers to another.” My statement elicited laughter. Since then, I’ve turned to E.J. whenever I had questions about the implications of various state budget proposals. But E.J. is not responsible for the eight years of budget votes I have cast.
But in this recent two-year Session cycle, I voted against a number of pension sweetener bills. Our public pension costs are spiraling into unsustainability and becoming a greater burden on taxpayers and the young. Pension costs ate becoming an ever larger share of state and local budgets. And, as this report points out, is impinging on our ability to maintain and expand needed public services.
My colleague Assemblyman Michael Fitzpatrick, a Republican from Long Island, has long advocated a defined contributions (DC) plan for public employees. He introduced legislation placing elected officials and political appointees in a DC plan. Like this report’s conclusion, Mr. Fitzpatrick would prefer to end the existing public pension system. Which as we know is much easier said than done. You have a Republican Assemblyman from Suffolk County and an outgoing Democratic Bronx Assemblyman agreeing. But the likelihood of the Democratic Majority Conference agreeing to replace the existing public pension system is not very high. Members and staff are invested in maintaining the present system despite the looming precipice. They argue that a generous public pension is the tradeoff for accepting lowering public sector pay. They will contend that the pension padding, double-dipping, overtime spiking and other abuses are anomalies. I suspect that it will take another fiscal crisis like the one in NYC in 1975 that led to the Tier 3 reforms.
The “true North” transparency recommendations (in the report) must be applied to all of New York State’s pension funds. Just as the Legislature has passed truth-in-lending laws for banks, it should pass truth-in-pension-cost legislation. This and other necessary changes must be enacted and not allowed to be undone when the market and the state’s economy improves.