Monday, January 3, 2011
By NICHOLAS CONFESSORE
New York Times
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo will seek a one-year salary freeze for state workers as part of an emergency financial plan he will lay out in his State of the State address on Wednesday, senior administration officials said.
The move will signal the opening of what is expected to be a grueling fight between the new governor and the public-sector unions that have traditionally dominated the state’s political establishment.
It will also come days after the New Year’s Eve layoffs of more than 900 state workers, an event that union representatives marked with a candlelight vigil on the steps of the Capitol and outside government offices in five other cities.
“The governor said during his campaign that the difficult financial times call for shared sacrifice,” said a senior administration official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the governor’s address. “A salary freeze is obviously a difficult thing for many government workers, but it’s necessary if the state is going to live within its means.”
While the immediate budget savings from the freeze would be relatively modest — between $200 million and $400 million against a projected deficit in excess of $9 billion — achieving it would be politically meaningful.
And because such a step would not require legislative approval, Mr. Cuomo could achieve it while bypassing the Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, and the Democratic-controlled State Assembly, labor’s most powerful allies in Albany.
Of course, a freeze — which Mr. Cuomo promised he would seek during his campaign — would be subject to negotiation with the unions. But labor contracts for the vast majority of the state’s 190,000 employees expire on March 31, giving Mr. Cuomo an opening to seek changes at a time of public unease toward government workers’ benefits.
Salaries, health care and pension benefits for state workers represent one of the largest and fastest-growing areas of spending, accounting for about one-fifth of all state dollars.
On Sunday, a spokesman for the Civil Service Employees Association, the largest union of state workers, said that the association was open to discussions with Mr. Cuomo, but was uncomfortable with unilateral demands.
“There’s a significant difference between negotiating in good faith, and issuing some kind of edict that may or may not be legal,” said Stephen Madarasz, the association spokesman. “It’s really all based on what action follows.”
Public-sector unions around the nation face growing political pressures not only from Republicans but also from their traditional allies among Democrats, as governors grapple with recession, declining tax revenues and pension funds perilously close to bankruptcy.
In November, following the Republican takeover of the House, President Obama ordered a two-year salary freeze for civilian federal workers, subject to Congressional approval.
On Wednesday, Mr. Cuomo is also expected to call for a constitutional cap on state spending that would limit growth to the rate of inflation and for a budget that does not raise corporate, personal income or sales taxes, echoing proposals he made on the campaign trail. He will also repeat his call for a cap on the growth of local property taxes.
Even if he succeeds in winning a freeze, experts said, Mr. Cuomo will ultimately need to tackle more difficult public employee benefits, including a substantial restructuring of the state’s pension system, which faces serious shortfalls in the coming years.
“The past couple of budgets have really been holdover, stopgap plans,” said Elizabeth Lynam, vice president of the Citizens Budget Commission, an advocacy group that favors more limited spending. A one-year salary freeze, she added, would be “a beginning, and it’s a shot across the bow at organized labor, which has to date been uncompromising.”
“Hopefully it will lead to broad-based changes in the way state employees are compensated,” she said.
Mr. Cuomo has made clear that breaking the stranglehold that entrenched interests, including unions, have on political leaders in Albany is a major priority.
But Mr. Cuomo, who has longstanding ties to labor and was endorsed by the Public Employees Federation last year, is hoping that unions will join him in the effort to fix the state’s budget problems. In recent months, he invited public-sector unions to become his partners, even sending their leaders copies of “The Man Who Saved New York,” a biography of former Gov. Hugh L. Carey, which recounts how Mr. Carey, a Democrat, teamed up with labor leaders in similar fashion in the 1970s.
At the same time, Mr. Cuomo has signaled that he is ready to fight, and has vowed to avoid the fate of his predecessors, who have endured millions of dollars in withering television advertisements from public-sector unions seeking to forestall cuts to state spending.
After his landslide victory in November, he kept a substantial campaign war chest on reserve to run his own ads to counter any union-backed television campaigns and is now deploying outside advisers to organize business interests into what he hopes will become a counterweight to labor: a new group known as the Committee to Save New York.
Mr. Cuomo on Sunday attended Mass with his girlfriend, Sandra Lee, and his three daughters at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, down the street from the Executive Mansion. Shortly after that, he returned to work at the Capitol, where aides were huddled to help draft Wednesday’s speech and attend to other issues.
“We’re going to be getting back to work,” he told reporters after the service.
He also issued an executive order that will require top administration officials to undergo ethics training within the first three months of this year and to be recertified every two years afterward.
Thomas Kaplan contributed reporting.
(A version of this article appeared in print on January 3, 2011, on page A1 of the New York edition.)
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