The state Legislature would have the legal ability to institute a wage freeze for all state workers, according to a legal opinion obtained by the conservative Empire Center for New York State today, Gannett’s Jon Campbell reports.
Citing similar situations in Yonkers, Buffalo and Baltimore, labor attorneys Terry O’Neil and Howard Miller said there is precedence for the Legislature to freeze the pay of public employees — so long as it passes legislation declaring the state in a fiscal emergency.
“In short, a court reviewing a statutory wage freeze will likely defer to legislative findings of a fiscal emergency,” they wrote in the opinion. “If it can be shown that other less intrusive interventions were tried without success to protect the public, the Legislation will be upheld.”
Empire Center Director E.J. McMahon said the move could save $1.6 billion in the 2010-11 fiscal years, preventing layoffs and saving public services.
“Even as they cut programs and services, local governments and school districts are in the position of having to increase wages — in many cases, step increments — for their employees,” McMahon said at a press conference. “We propose a different approach to this. We suggested that the governor and the Legislature impose a public-sector pay freeze throughout the state in every level of government.”
The pay of public employees has been a hot topic of late. Gov. David Paterson has proposed a plan that would put state workers on furlough one day a week until the state budget, which is now over a month late, is passed. Paterson has already delayed a 4-percent wage increase that was due to state workers on April 1 by not including money for the raises in his emergency budget appropriations. Both moves have been criticized by the public employees unions.
O’Neil said the governor can legally act unilaterally to impose furloughs, but would have to negotiate to withhold the pay of the workers. McMahon said a plan to freeze wages could help with long-term budget planning, while Paterson’s furlough plan would only be in place during the budget impasse.
“This is not something (Paterson) is proposing as a permanent part of next year’s budget or as part of a multi-year workout, which is the way pay freezes have been envisioned and used in the past,” McMahon said.
Paterson, however, told reporters he’s not sure he could permanently delay raises, saying he can do so now because the state doesn’t have a budget deal in place.
“Whether or not the governor or the Legislature would have the authority to delay the increases is something I would not be sure that we have that jurisdiction,” he said.
Asked how budget talks are going, Paterson said, “As long as the budget is not passed, it can’t be going that well.”