NEW YORK, October 8, 2013 — The chorus from that lame seventies ballad kept ringing through my ears: “You left me just when I needed you most.” It was all I could think of last month they announced that the fiscally conservative advocacy group “Save New York” had disbanded.
Save New York was founded at the advent of the Cuomo administration to offset the impact that labor unions and other big-spending interests had on the political process. Their efforts have helped the State government slow its rate of growth, but now as the most important measures to help avoid fiscal Armageddon are before the legislature, this influential group has faded into the sunset.
Message to its founders: Come back soon, we need you now more than ever.
If you doubt the amazing impact Save New York had on the political process, reflect back to the David Paterson administration. Paterson, a lifelong liberal consensus builder, was thrust into a leadership position at a time when governments across the nation were in a state of collapse. He knew he had to make tough decisions, but Paterson had not been elected to this position and had no mandate. There hadn’t yet been the municipal bankruptcies that were to come later, or the riots in the streets of European welfare states. His attempt at fiscal reform was pounded into oblivion by an onslaught of commercials — paid for by teacher, healthcare and statewide unions — that pulled on the public’s heartstrings.
By 2010, however, the climate across the nation had started to change. New Jersey was implementing caps on property taxes and mandatory arbitration awards. Wisconsin’s Scott Walker was telling the municipal unions that the gravy train had to end, while Ohio’s Governor Kasich put forth fiscally responsible measures that brought employment back to his State.
In my short-lived run for Governor, I was the first candidate to lay out an extensive 50-Point Plan to save New York, including the elimination of both the Triborough Amendment and mandatory arbitration, as well as a property tax cap, a state spending cap and a pension reform that included changing to a defined contribution system for incoming employees. Other candidates followed with plans of their own, and once Paterson decided to not seek re-election, presumptive Democratic nominee Andrew Cuomo was able to veer toward the center with his fiscal plan, which looked a lot like mine.
Winning a smashing victory in 2010, Cuomo had the political capital to start making some needed changes. For the first two years of his administration, he pushed forward many sound policies. The question was whether these proposals would suffer the same fate as they did under his predecessor. The answer was clear once Cuomo pulled out his ace in the hole: the Save New York Campaign.
Fiscal conservatives, who in the past stood on the sidelines bemoaning that unions controlled the legislature process, finally combined forces and created their own Committee, raising an unheard of $17 million to hit the airwaves. A property tax cap, which earlier would have been unthinkable in a union state like New York, actually passed, thanks to the efforts of this organization. And Cuomo’s first budget, which called for a significant slowdown in spending in healthcare and education, won the day.
Cuomo’s political acumen was so sharp that he was somehow able to get the New York State Hospital Council to run ads in support of a budget that cut money to healthcare. Presumably, they believed that a deal was in the works to enact tort reform that never materialized. State employee contracts with three years of zeros were enacted, something that would have been unheard of before this new mood took hold in Albany. Things certainly did seem to be heading in the right direction.
Unfortunately, we have seen a tempering of these aggressive moves over the last year. The timing is unfortunate, because the fiscal stress upon governments continues to mount. While the immediate shock of the credit and real estate collapses has waned, this does not mean that we are out of the woods. In fact, obligations related to pensions, retiree healthcare and other public workforce entitlements are sending us on a path that is unsustainable.
That’s why, now more than ever, we need mandate relief reform. We need a conversion to a defined contribution pension system, the elimination of mandatory arbitration and the Triborough Amendment, as well as the elimination of the state law that includes the presumption that certain State workers who have fought long illnesses contracted those illnesses through the workplace.
Promoting such reforms will generate the ire of municipal unions and many big spending interests. It will take a counter-balancing lobbying force such as Save New York to give elected officials the cover and the momentum needed to enact these needed reforms. Save New York: You’ve left us just when we needed you most.
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