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Maziarz, Ryan seek to limit access to state pension system

ALBANY – A measure to ban employees who work for private, non-profit associations that represent everyone from school boards to mayors from participating in the state’s pension system is getting a renewed push by some lawmakers.

“These are the same groups who every year come before the Legislature and talk about the necessity for pension reform and they are really part of the problem,” said Sen. George Maziarz, R-Newfane, who seeks to end the pension benefits.

Maziarz said the pension ban was included in the state budget right up until the very end of the process in late March when it was suddenly stripped from the budget. Maziarz said he did not know who – the governor’s office or the state Legislature – took out the provision.

So Maziarz said he and Assemblyman Sean Ryan, a Buffalo Democrat, are trying again with legislation that would ban future workers at the associations from being able to join the state pension system, as well as a companion bill barring current workers from accruing any more time towards their pension that would boost post-retirement payments.

But David Albert, a spokesman for the New York State School Boards Association, said the pension benefits have been available since 1952. The law was expanded in 1989 by an act of the Legislature, and signed into law by then-Gov. Mario Cuomo, to permit any school board association to be a member of the state and local government pension system. That system, one of the world’s largest public pension funds, is controlled by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.

In 1945, the Legislature also permitted the spending of public funds by localities as dues to the association. Albert said no one working at the association today was around when the pension benefit was established in 1952.

“I’m guessing the theory is we serve locally elected officials,” he said of the group’s work that is aimed at advocating for protections of school districts on everything from state funding to regulatory schemes.

But Maziarz said the organizations are private, that benefits are too lucrative and the system is too hodge-podge. He said, for instance, that the Erie County Association of Schools has the pension benefit for its employees while similar local groups in Monroe and Westchester counties do not.

Maziarz said 70 retirees from the different organizations – including groups representing school boards, counties, towns and others – are presently getting a total of about $2 million in annual pension benefits. Thirty-three are former members of the school boards’ association. One retiree who left the payroll in 2011 is getting a $95,000 pension while another has been collecting a $65,000 annual pension since retiring in 1984.

“The real story is many of these people are registered lobbyists,” Maziarz said of employees of the associations, most of which are headquartered around the Albany area.

But Albert took exception to that claim. “We do a lot more than advocacy,” he said of the school boards group. He said the organization trains districts on financial matters and provides information about new laws and regulations that affect the 700 school districts in the state.

“That argument can be made for a whole host of not-for-profit organizations across New York State,” Maziarz said.

Whether the school boards, or the New York Conference of Mayors or the New York State Association of Counties, the groups are largely seen as representing the interests of local government officials in often highly complex fiscal and legal matters in Albany. Albert noted that the groups don’t contribute campaign money to candidates, don’t make political endorsements and are all non-partisan. “We bring a voice of thousands of school board members to Albany to talk about how laws and regulations would impact school districts,” Albert said.

The issue is one of many that will be taken up before lawmakers end their 2014 session in mid-June. The Senate, for the first time since the budget was passed March 31, returned on Monday; the Assembly, also back in town Monday, has been off since breaking April 8.