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6/14/2011 9:40:00 AM
It's beginning to look a lot like Wisconsin in New York
N.Y. governor tackles public sector unions, but are comparisons to Wisconsin real?

Richard Moore
Investigative Reporter

News Analysis

During last fall's campaign for governor, the candidate who would win it all vowed to cut government spending, and he vowed to take on the power of public employee unions that he said were part of the state's budget problems.

When he won, he didn't back down. He pushed for major concessions in employee benefits to help close a crushing state deficit, and he threatened to lay off thousands of public workers if the unions didn't agree to them.

Then, when they didn't accept the givebacks, the new governor issued the pink slips, just as he said he would.

That's not all. His state budget plan slashes billions of dollars in Medicaid spending and aid to public schools, which raised further protests from union leaders.

It might all sound pretty familiar, but, no, that governor's name is not Scott Walker, and the state is not Wisconsin. The man isn't even a Republican. It's Andrew Cuomo, Democrat of New York.

Facing a $10-billion budget shortfall, Cuomo proposed and got passed an austere budget that would slash $2.8 billion in spending from Medicaid and $1.2 billion from public schools, and last week he announced a proposal to reduce retirement benefits for all new state workers, all the while making good on a promise to lay off 9,800 state workers after major unions balked at his request for concessions. He called for the pink slips to be issued July 15.

None of this is to say Cuomo is a not a real Democrat - he is - and it's not to say he's the mirror image of Scott Walker, either in style or substance. He's not.

For one thing, Cuomo stands staunchly to the left when it comes to social issues - one of his priorities has been a law permitting same-sex marriages, and he is as pro-abortion as they come for a Catholic governor.

Still, on fiscal issues, it has been looking a lot like Wisconsin in New York this spring, meaning the same structural deficit existed in the Empire state as in the Badger state, and as in most other states, and the cause is the same for virtually every one of them: decades and decades of excessive government spending, fueled in large part by the growth of public-sector unions and the generous contracts they have secured for government workers compared to the private sector.

The reality is, for those governors who want to have any hope of gaining control of runaway budget deficits, Democrats and Republicans alike are being forced to govern in like-minded ways.

They have been forced to confront the special interests that reside within the halls of government.

There are differences

To be sure, there are major differences between Walker and Cuomo, both in the way they campaigned and in the way they have governed.

Walker, for example, never used the the get-tough-with-public-sector-unions language that Cuomo did while campaigning. Walker was blunt about cutting state spending, as well as tax rates and reducing regulatory burdens on business, and he hinted at a broad agenda necessary to contain state spending, but he never explicitly mentioned taking the public-sector unions on.

Cuomo did.

Time and again, in fact, candidate Cuomo used his stump speeches to paint public-employee unions as special interests that had helped to dig the state into its budget hole, and, in a startling interview with the New York Times before the election, he vowed to confront them, saying he would, in the words of The Times, mount a permanent campaign against affluent unions that he said got their way by bullying state officials from the governor on down.

"We've seen the same play run for 10 years," Mr. Cuomo told The Times. "The governor announces the budget, unions come together, put $10 million in a bank account, run television ads against the governor. The governor's popularity drops; the governor's knees weaken; the governor falls to one knee, collapses, makes a deal."

Cuomo said that scenario would not repeat itself in his administration, and he has been true to his word. His budget and his stance toward the unions have won him praise from both conservative Republicans and Tea Party leaders.

Still, and this is a major policy difference between the New York and the Wisconsin chief executives, Cuomo did not target collective bargaining as Walker did in Wisconsin. He says he doesn't plan to, either.

"It's all the difference in the world between what we're proposing here and what he's proposing," Cuomo told reporters in February, referring to Walker. "Do we have the same basic situation? Yes. But we're handling it different ways both programmatically and stylistically. We have the task forces, we have labor at the table. And my approach has been we're in a tough place, we're in a tough time, let's all work this out together."

And thus Cuomo provided the philosophical markers for his position. While Walker is a conservative who believes only fundamental institutional reform can rein in runaway government, Cuomo is a pragmatic liberal who recognizes the need for public-employee concessions now but still wants to preserve the unions - the cornerstone of any liberalism, even a pragmatic one - for the future.

Thus, while both men have sounded remarkably alike when they say immediate concessions are needed to give local governments and schools more flexibility in their budgets without increasing tax pressures on citizens, Walker says the collective bargaining limits are necessary to make sure wage-and-benefit creep doesn't re-emerge when a new governor takes office or the economy improves and the public and the media aren't looking.

Cuomo merely banks on short-term success without worrying about the long term. In retrospect, then, Cuomo's tough campaign talk about rooting out union special interests was less candid than it seemed, and less forthcoming than Walker's.

Can either man succeed?

So far, it remains to be seen whether either man can succeed.

To be sure, conservatives argue that history is on Walker's side - that unions make concessions in tough times only to elect friendly leaders who give the money back later. Thus his bid for fundamental reform - not only strict limits on collective bargaining but repealing the mandatory collection of union dues - is seen as vital to curtail the institutional and political power of the powerful public sector unions.

But that obviously carries with it explicit political risks - the demonstrations, the senate recalls, and the potential recall of the governor himself. The march to fundamental reform is a march that has led Wisconsin, and perhaps the nation, to the crossroads.

Cuomo is not facing any of that political peril, and he also is pointing to his recent budget agreement closing a $10-billion deficit as proof of his strategy's success, but he also hasn't won concessions from the unions as he had hoped to and that has forced him to up the ante legislatively and administratively.

Indeed, the unions' rejection of his proposed concessions led him last week to call for pink slips for 9,800 employees, a move Walker was able to rescind in Wisconsin, and it is a red flag about union intentions down the road if their prerogatives of power are preserved.

It all started out well for Cuomo. Not long after becoming governor, he reached agreement with a law enforcement union on a number of concessions, including wage freezes, the end of step increases, as well as increases in contributions to the employee health-insurance program.

Even though that was not one of the state's largest public-employee unions, Cuomo hoped the agreement would bolster his position with larger unions still in negotiations. Unfortunately for the governor, the rank and file rejected the concessions, and the larger outfits have continued to balk as well.

And so last week, along with the lay-off notices, Cuomo announced a controversial pension reform plan. The proposal would not affect current workers but would apply to new hires.

Using language that echoes that of Walker, Cuomo said the reforms would reduce costs for local governments and schools and help control local property taxes for homeowners and businesses.

Specifically, among other things, the legislation would raise the retirement age from 62 to 65, end early retirement, require employees to contribute 6 percent of their salary for the duration of their careers, provide vesting after 12 years instead of 10 years, and eliminate lump sum payouts for unused vacation leave from the final average salary calculation.

"The numbers speak for themselves - the pension system as we know it is unsustainable," Cuomo said. "This bill institutes common-sense reforms to bring government benefits more in line with the private sector while still serving our employees and protecting our retirees. Reducing the skyrocketing pension burden faced by local governments and schools will also help get control of local property taxes that are driving New Yorkers from their homes and from the state."

Predictably, union leaders weren't happy, and said so using refrains heard in Wisconsin earlier this year.

"This is just another attack on middle-class workers at the behest of big business and corporations," Andrew Pallotta, executive vice president of the 575,000-member New York State United Teachers, said.

Others praised the plan.

"Rapidly rising pension costs have squeezed the budgets of every government in New York State and contributed to New York's high tax burden," said Carol Kellermann, president of the Citizens Budget Commission. "New York needs an affordable pension plan that reflects current economic times and can be sustained over the long term. Governor Cuomo's proposal for a new tier is fiscally responsible and would provide significant relief to taxpayers and local governments."

Timothy G. Kremer, executive director of the New York State School Boards Association, agreed.

"School districts have been punished by escalating pension costs for the last several years," Kremer said. "The current retirement systems are no longer sustainable. Saving $93 billion over time will provide welcome relief to school districts and taxpayers struggling to make ends meet."

Teacher accountability

The budget and benefits are not the only places where Cuomo has targeted long-held practices of the state's teachers' unions.

He has also introduced proposals to boost the accountability of teachers. Under Cuomo's direction, for example, student test scores will now count for as much as 40 percent of a teacher's evaluation score, up from 20 percent.

"While seniority should be part of the equation, it cannot be the only factor when making important employment decisions in our schools," Cuomo said.

In the end, this much can be concluded: The political terrain in New York and Wisconsin, as portrayed in specific proposals by the states' respective governors to cut spending and win public-employee benefit concessions, or to impose them by legislation, look very much alike, and that look is decidedly conservative.

Still, in the end, beneath the short-term language, the substance of the policies are quite different. Walker is proposing long-term and fundamental reform that would remove special interests from the mechanisms of government power, while Cuomo proposes to leave that internal infrastructure intact.

It's the difference between conservatism and pragmatic liberalism.

It's hard to fathom long-term success for the New York governor when he seeks to undertake a pragmatically liberal revolution without the aggravation of changing any fundamental institutions or power complexes, especially the very ones that brought the state to economic crisis in the first place.

That is to say, sooner or later, the bosses who have power will likely exercise it if they retain it. They always do.

Walker's approach is sounder for the long term but politically riskier in the short term, and that's the aggravation that comes with seeking true change. In a bid to retain their power, the public sector unions are flexing their muscles and spending their war chests like there is no tomorrow - because, if they lose, there is no tomorrow.

All of which is an indication of how they would use that muscle if they win, and why Wisconsin, and not New York, is ground zero politically this year and next. The outcome of the fever-pitched battles unfolding here will either curb public sector unions once and for all, or unleash them to swallow pragmatic liberalism whole.

In either case, Cuomo's approach will be rendered irrelevant - too timid to reform government in the first instance, and representing an unsustainable path of concession and negotiation that would assuredly be rejected by triumphant union leaders if they win in Wisconsin.

So, while it might look a lot like Wisconsin in New York these days, beneath the painted political scenery, Cuomo's bid is so much liberal theater, like a Broadway play, compared to the real-life drama unfolding in the American heartland.

Richard Moore may be reached at rmmoore1@frontier.com.

Related Stories:
• Supreme Court reinstates collective bargaining curbs

Reader Comments

Posted: Friday, June 17, 2011
Article comment by: Rick Smith

While you're filling up your car with $4.00 a gallon gas, think about how much of that is going directly into the Koch's pocket...


Posted: Friday, June 17, 2011
Article comment by: John Kriewaldt

Given the wonders of the internet, we can read many newspapers frmo around the country. What I find interesting is that the new Democrat mayor of Chicago is definetly not the friend of the teacher's union that the teachers thought he would be. Even Democrat leaders are adopting, or will be adopting, many of the same budget changes that our governor is adopting. Curbing the power of public unions and getting the employee costs under control is the only way to rein in the runaway spending. And, adult politicians of both parties are coming to realize it!

Posted: Wednesday, June 15, 2011
Article comment by: Eric Thomson

Very well written and supported with good data. However, this article still neglects to mention what I believe is Walker's true intent in eliminating collective bargaining: To destroy a large source of funding for the Democratic party both at the state and federal level. Plain and simple it is a power grab to keep Republicans in power as long as possible. I do NOT believe Walker has a altruistic bone in his body.

Posted: Tuesday, June 14, 2011
Article comment by: Lisa MaKarrall

Here's a few other differences Richard. Scott Walker got the concessions he was looking for from the unions, but chose instead to rip this state apart. I also didn't hear a fake phone call between Cuomo and someone pretending to be David Koch. Scott Walker admitted on that call that he was working for the Koch brothers and not Wisconsinites. While testifying in front of Congress, Scott Walker also admitted he lied when he said eliminating collective bargaining saved Wisconsin money...it doesn't save a dime. Also under oath, he admitted he had never campaigned on the issue as those who blindly support him continually insist he did.
I would like to see a story by you on the real reason we are paying through the nose for a gallon of gas...and that would go back again to the Koch brothers and they're speculating on oil prices. Oil speculation adds an estimated $50.00 on to a barrel of oil and the Koch brothers are the kings of speculation...Here's the story..
How can you support Scott Walker and his bosses Richard? Forget your hatred for unions, what about our kids, elderly, poor and disabled? How about the roll backs on the enviroment and water safety...support that?
How about spending 7 million dollars for voter i.d. (ie voter suppression)because of 3 questionable votes out of 3 million cast? Do you support that? Last I heard, we were broke.
While you're filling up your car with $4.00 a gallon gas, think about how much of that is going directly into the Koch's pocket...your BFF Scott Walker's bosses.

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