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New York cannot afford to expand pension benefits for SUNY police officers

Who can blame SUNY police officers for seeking the same generous pension benefit offered to other police officers in the state? Anyone would want the ability to retire after 20 years’ service.

But it’s not feasible anymore. The state is working hard to dial back its long-term pension obligations, and to move in the other direction, by approving an extraordinarily generous pension benefit, would be crazy. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo would be the one to blame if he ever proposed that kind of change.

But Cuomo hasn’t, and that is to the frustration of SUNY police union officials. Last year, Cuomo wisely vetoed legislation that would have provided the pension benefit for nearly 600 SUNY police officers. And this year – wisely, again – he did not include it in his proposed state budget.

Police work is hard and the job carries obvious significant risks. Officers deserve a strong compensation package. But the idea that anyone, including current officers, can retire after 20 years with a full pension is ludicrous. It certainly doesn’t happen in the private sector and it is unfair to ask the private sector to pay even more for that benefit than it already does.

Pensions are one of the largest public costs of New Yorkers, and Albany has been working to bring them under control. Just three years ago, Cuomo proposed and won creation of a sixth pension tier, meaning the future pensions of all employees hired after its effective date would be guided by its provisions. Each tier, in fact, is less generous than the previous one, as New York struggles to bring its retirement obligations into a form that is affordable by New Yorkers, who are moving out of the state faster than others are moving in. It’s a painful process, but it has been a necessary one.

As it stands, SUNY police officers cannot retire until age 63, which probably sounds familiar to a lot of other New Yorkers. But the SUNY police union argues, unpersuasively, that the failure to provide the extravagant pension that other officers receive is creating retention problems and public safety issues.

It would be interesting to see some documentation of those claims, but in the end, there is no way this state can justify expanding pension benefits so significantly when its direction has been to bring them under control.

If SUNY police officers feel they deserve something more, they should look somewhere besides a 20-year-and-out retirement package. That’s what negotiations are for.