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April 2016

 

Beware: Changes to the NYS Constitution are in the air
Pete Herron, President SCCC Retiree Association

 

political corruption cartoon
 

On Sunday, January 24, 2016, Newsday had an editorial with the headline "Break the law, lose the pension: New York State should amend the constitution to deter officials from betraying the public trust."

There were pictures of six recently convicted public officials and their annual pensions. These pensions range from $57,050 to $175,295. Two were among the three most powerful people in the state, former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Included in this gallery was former State Comptroller Alan Hevesi, who as comptroller was responsible for state pensions. Isn’t that scary? Two were public school officials, former Roslyn schools Superintendent Frank Tassone and former Roslyn schools business administrator Pamela Gluckin. The sixth highlighted was former State Senator Nicholas Spanao. Newsday invited its readers to go to its website to see these six and nine more convicted public officials and their pensions.

On Monday, January 25, 2016, The New York Times had a column, "Convicted, but still with a pension," by Westchester County Democratic New York State Assemblyman David Buchwald. In the first paragraph Buchwald tells the reader that Skelos and Silver have exercised their legal right to apply for their pensions and this means they could easily get millions more of taxpayer money. I’m sure many other newspapers in New York State had similar articles or op-ed columns highlighting convicted former elected public official and state employees collecting their pensions. All strongly stating the need to strip pensions from those convicted of a felon while serving as a public official.

Governor Andrew Cuomo included pension stripping in his State of the State address. Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie and the Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan have shown their support for some form of pension stripping in their legislative session opening remarks. According to Newsday there have been dozens of bills designed to change the current constitutional pension protection. The latest of these is by Senator Tom Croci (R-Sayville) and is pending in the state legislature. Last March a Quinnipiac University poll found that voters supported pension forfeiture by a margin of 76% to 18%.

Clearly momentum is building for a change in the way New York State pensions are to be protected. It appears that most attempts at changing the state’s pension protection are aimed at those who are convicted of a felony while serving as a public official and still protect the pensions of the majority of the state employees who have served honorably. We must all be vigilant by looking closely at any proposed constitutional amendment that strips pensions from crooks does not jeopardize the pensions of law abiding state pensioners.

There are two ways to amend the New York State Constitution. After a bill to amend the state constitution is passed by two successive legislatures, it must then go before the public as a state referendum. If a bill to amend the constitution is passed this session and the next, it could be presented to the public as a referendum in November 2017. Newsday feels the passage, by this method, of a pension stripping amendment would be a "slam-dunk." This method of amending the state constitution does not jeopardize any other part of the state constitution.

The second way the state constitution can be amended is by a state constitutional convention. Every 20 years, as required by the state constitution, a referendum is place on the ballot asking voters if they want a constitutional convention. This referendum will be on the ballot in 2017. There are polls indicating a vast majority of voters think having a constitutional convention is a good idea. Many think this because of how dysfunctional Albany is and a constitutional convention is the way to fix the state government.

Nothing could be more wrong. If a constitutional convention is to convene, delegates need to be elected. The most politically powerful are the most likely to get nominated and elected. They already have the election process under their control. That is why they continually get reelected and Albany is in such bad shape. This would be nothing more than having the fox minding the hen house. This is bad enough but a constitutional convention is much worse than this. Once a constitutional convention is convened, every bit of the constitution is open for change. How judges are elected and appointed. How state parks are protected. Public education, state colleges, pensions, labor protection, public transportation, mineral extraction, protection of the state waterways, etc., are all open for change. This could mean a free-for-all by the very people who have made Albany such a sewer of corruption.

At the convention there is no limit to what can be amended. The final produce of the convention is presented to the voters as take all or leave all. There will be those who will say there are some bad changes but some I like, therefore I will take the bad with the good. How many voters who do not have and never will have a public pension say I will vote for the total package even though public employees will unfairly have their pensions eliminated or reduced?

What can you do about this threat to your pension?

  • For starters you can talk to your friends and relatives about the dangers of having a constitutional convention. Not just about the threat to your pension but for all the other potential destruction of a constitutional convention to New York State and all its citizens.

  • You can let your state senator and assemblyperson know where you stand. You can support NYSUT in its fight to protect its members by contributing to VOTE-COPE.

    Contact Anita in the FA office for a form (451-4151 or anita@fascc.org); FA members give anywhere between $1-$20 per paycheck via payroll deduction.

  • You can get actively involved in NYSUT and in particular the Faculty Association: 451-4151, Southampton Building 224J (Ammerman Campus).

If you are not willing to protect the benefits you have earned, who do you think will do it for you?