It’s make or break time for legislation coming before Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. Here’s one bill worth killing, one that needs signing and one that, having become law, must now lead to better behavior.
The State Senate and Assembly unanimously approved legislation allowing public union employee pay increases based on longevity even during wage freezes. Nassau County’s unions love it, the Nassau Interim Finance Authority hates it. A freeze from 2011-2014 saved the county $230 million but kept new police officers stuck at a pay grade of about $34,000. Such freezes are for fiscal emergencies, and the political pressure the threat of them creates is supposed to encourage good management and prevent such emergencies. The bill is so clearly irresponsible that it could not attract a sponsor in the Senate and had to be advanced anonymously out of the rules committee. Cuomo should veto it.
Higher education funding has been a political food fight for years, and state funding has remained largely flat while rising student tuition covers an increasing percentage of budgets for SUNY and CUNY — two-thirds of SUNY’s operating costs, for example. The state did increase funding in the current budget, and started its Excelsior free-tuition program for some students.
What’s missing is a guarantee state funding will increase as expenses and inflation do. Now, the state commits only to not reduce spending each year. A bill sponsored by Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) would change the “maintenance of effort” clause to mean that the state will cover, for example, increased energy costs, a new collective bargaining agreement or any inflation-related increase.
Keeping a college education affordable for students and families is critical. Cuomo should sign the legislation.
Freedom of Information Law
One bill Cuomo just signed strengthens New York’s Freedom of Information Law, which allows any person to request public records from government agencies. The bill corrects a flaw in the law that allowed judges to decide whether to award attorneys’ fees to a plaintiff whose public records request is found to have been wrongly denied. The uncertainty of being reimbursed has had a chilling effect on transparency.
The fix requires judges to award such fees if the plaintiff “has substantially prevailed” and there was “no reasonable basis” for an agency to deny a records request. If government wrongly tries to hide information, it must pay your legal costs for seeking it. But if an agency simply misses a deadline to respond to a records request, a judge still has discretion in awarding attorneys’ fees. We share Cuomo’s frustration that the State Legislature still is exempt from this legislation but applaud his decision to sign the bill. Now all levels of government, including agencies under Cuomo’s direction, must honor the spirit of the law and promptly provide information when it’s properly requested and subject to FOIL. The point is not to award fees when requests are improperly denied, but to deter improper denials and make easy and fast access to information the default response.