Cuomo asks counties for help passing pension reform

PHOTO: saebaryo / via Flickr.com

Governor Cuomo told county leaders gathered for their annual meeting that he would meet them half way in providing mandate relief in the form of helping to defray health care and future pension costs. But he told the county officials, it’s up to them to do the rest.

Governor Cuomo, in a speech to the county leaders that repeated many of the points of his budget presentation,  says he’s working on mandate relief  that will help the counties live within the recently imposed 2% property tax cap.

Currently, the state pays for all of the counties’ Medicaid expenses that rise above 3% each year.  Cuomo says the state will phase in a takeover of all cost increases for the health care program, which would essentially freeze Medicaid rates for the counties, when fully implemented.

“This year we’ll go even further,” Cuomo said.

Counties in New York, as well as the City of New York, are expected to pay 25% of total Medicaid costs.

The New York Association of Counties had been seeking a total state takeover of all of their Medicaid costs. The association’s Steve Acquario says while he’s appreciative that the governor recognizes the counties’ plight, Cuomo needs to do more.

“It’s never enough,” said Acquario, who says counties suffer from a long term structural deficit.

Cuomo says he needs to operate in what he calls the “realm of the real”. He says it would be “wholly unmanageable” for the state to take over the counties’ total Medicaid costs, right now, because it would sot the state $8 billion dollars.

“That is just not possible,” Cuomo said.

Acquario says perhaps the new federal health care reform could provide some of the money needed for the takeover.  And he says he understands the governor’s need to be “pragmatic and reasonable”. He says what’s important, is that the governor is at least starting the Medicaid takeover process.

“We need to start somewhere,” Acquario said. “We’re very glad that he’s put this on the table.”

The governor is also pressing for a new benefit tier for public employees, something counties say is desperately needed because they can no longer afford future pension benefits owed to retirees.  Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has already said the proposal has “pitfalls”. Cuomo admits that, politically, the plan will be a hard sell to many legislators, who have long been friendly with labor unions. The governor told the county officials that they would have to help him do the lobbying for the new pension tier.

“I need you engaged in the battle,” said Cuomo. “You have to take the responsibility.”

Acquario, with the Association of Counties, says the pension reform is “essential”, saying it offers “serious relief”.

“The status quo can not be sustained,” Acquario said. “It will soon be 25 to 30% of every county’s property tax levy.”

The new pension tier is part of Cuomo’s budget proposal. At least one State Senator, Diane Savino of Staten Island,  has said she doubts the legislature will approve the new benefit tier as part of the budget. Cuomo would not answer a question on whether he’d accept a spending plan from the legislature that does not include the pension tier, saying, “we’ll negotiate a budget as we go along”.