11:23am

Fri February 24, 2012
Politics and Government

Duffy campaigns in Syracuse to lift "dark cloud" of mandates

Lieutenant Governor Robert Duffy has been beating a path back and forth across upstate New York, as he campaigns for Governor Andrew Cuomo’s budget initiatives.

Duffy made his second stop in Syracuse this week on Thursday, this time to drum up support for changes to pensions and Medicaid funding.

But this time he brought some friends.

Duffy led a hearing of the 11-member Mandate Relief Council [PDF], made up of members of Cuomo’s administration and elected lawmakers. The group heard testimony from central New York government and business leaders at Le Moyne College.

Mandates are “a dark cloud”

Local governments argue their contributions to state pensions and Medicaid are breaking the bank.

“Unfortunately, there is a dark cloud that hangs over our county,” Madison County Board of Supervisors Chair John Becker told the panel. “It hinders economic development and makes home ownership a struggle. It places the burden on county government to limit and cut local services.”

To help with that cloud, Cuomo has proposed major changes to a pension system that he says could bankrupt the state, if not altered.

New state workers would be given a retirement plan more similar to what private sector workers get, which the governor is calling a Tier VI pension. Tier VI acts more like a 401(k), instead of a traditional pension plan. The governor says moving new hires to the new tier will save upstate taxpayers $83 billion over 30 years.

The state is also proposing to take over new Medicaid payments from county governments. The change would save counties and New York City $1.2 billion over five years, contends Cuomo.

That has a lot of county governments on board, including Onondaga County’s republican executive Joanie Mahoney. Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner, who says her city is facing a financial crisis, says the prospect of not having to pay as much into pension funds is playing well with her.

Very, very difficult decisions

“At one point, local governments did not pay into the pension fund. Now the costs are just driving them to sometimes raise taxes or make other very, very difficult decisions on services,” Duffy says of the problem Syracuse and other cities are facing.

Neither Miner nor Mahoney attended the council hearing Thursday, but they did hold a press conference on the issue with Duffy last month.

Duffy said before the council’s hearing that it’s important for those opposed to this plan – referring to labor unions – to look to the future.

“This does not involve any of their current members, and what the governor is doing is making decisions that will impact tax payers and communities 30 years down the road,” says Duffy. “I think other leaders have to do the same thing. We all have a responsibility for what we do for the future and you cannot kick this can down the road again.”

But his boss is also engaged in a battle with state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli over the proposed pension reforms; they have until April 1 when the budget is due to hash it out.

The Mandate Relief Council will hold hearings in the Mohawk Valley, North Country and elsewhere over the next few weeks.