The following is a brief overview of certain portions of the State Fiscal Year 2015–16 Budget related to the workforce, pension, ethics and financial disclosure. These are in addition to the budget’s advancement of legislation providing for the July 1, 2015 (2%), April 1, 2016 (2%), April 1, 2007 (2%) and April 1,2018 (1%) M/C general salary increases.
Forfeiture of Pensions for All Public Officials Convicted of Felonies
The Budget, in conjunction with a stand-alone proposed constitutional amendment to Section 7 of Article V of the New York State Constitution (A.6722 / S.4611), contains language that would authorize the forfeiture of public officials’ pension for a felony conviction related to public office regardless of when they became a member of the New York State and Local Employees’ Retirement System and the New York City Employees' Retirement System (hereinafter collectively “Retirement Systems”).
In 2011, the Legislature enacted Sections 156 and 157 of the Retirement and Social Security Law (“RSSL”), authorizing the forfeiture of certain public officials’ pensions in the event they were convicted of a crime related to public office. At the time, the statute only applied to public officials who became a member of one of the Retirement Systems after November 13, 2011. Such limited applicability was due to the constitutional protections of Section 7 of Article V of the New York State Constitution against the retroactive limitations on or forfeiture of a public officials’ pension. Now, the Budget amends Sections 156 and 157 of the RSSL to allow the forfeiture of any public official with members in the Retirement Systems regardless of their date of entry.
The Budget also adds a safe harbor provision for innocent spouses and minor children of a public official convicted and sentenced to a crime related to public office, where such spouse or minor children may apply to receive a portion of the pension benefits that would be otherwise forfeited.
With both houses passing the Budget legislation (A.3006-B / S.2006-B), the amendments to Section 156 and 157 of the RSSL will likely be signed by the Governor in short order. However, those amendments will not take effect until the first of January following the approval and ratification of the proposed constitutional amendment to Section 7 of Article V of the New York State Constitution. Even then, it shall only apply to those offenses committed on or after such effective date.
While the stand-alone proposed constitutional amendment (A.6722 / S.4611) passed the Senate on March 31, 2015, the Assembly adjourned before any further action could be taken on the legislation. Thus, since a constitutional amendment requires enabling legislation in the 2017 session, the earliest we would see this would be in 2018.
NYSHIP Dependent Eligibility Audit
The Department of Civil Service will oversee an external audit of dependent eligibility in the employee and retiree health plan (NYSHIP). The removal of ineligible dependents (e.g., ex-spouses or ineligible minors) from NYSHIP is estimated to save the State approximately $13 million annually or more if savings from public authorities and local governments are included. As a part of this external audit, the final Budget keeps legislation for the President of the Civil Service Commission to establish special amnesty periods which would protect employees who voluntarily identify ineligible dependents during the amnesty period. This authority was previously granted to the President but was limited to fiscal year 2008-09. This legislation would reinstate the President’s authority with the discretion to create these amnesty periods until March 31, 2016.
During an amnesty period, a public employee who reports an ineligible dependent would lose coverage and any premiums paid for the ineligible dependent. However, a voluntarily reporting employee would, in exchange, receive certain protections, such as NYSHIP being prohibited from seeking recovery of any claims paid on behalf of the ineligible dependent and an exemption from disciplinary, civil, or criminal action resulting from the coverage of the ineligible dependent.
Commission on Legislative, Judicial, and Executive Compensation
The Budget repeals the 2010 special commission on judicial compensation and, in its stead, establishes a commission that will convene on the first of June every fourth year beginning June 1, 2015 to examine, evaluate, and make recommendation on legislative, judicial, and executive compensation and non-salary benefits. The commission will be comprised of seven members with three appointed by the Governor, one appointed by the President of the Senate, one appointed by the Speaker of the Assembly, and two appointed by the Chief Judge of the State.
The salaries and non-salary benefits to be evaluated are for members of the legislature, judges and justices of the state-paid courts of the unified court systems, statewide elected officials, and those state officers under Section 169 of the Executive Law.
In evaluating and making recommendations on the level of compensation for the aforementioned positions, the Commission is required to take into account the overall economic climate, rates of inflation, changes in public-sector spending, parity with comparable positions of sister states and the federal government, compensation and non-salary benefits of professionals in government, academia, and private and non-profit enterprises, and the State’s ability to absorb the funding increases.
Despite all of the press coverage and lengthy discussions between lawmakers and the Governor, the Budget includes only minor reforms to ethics and campaign finance laws. Importantly, the provisions on enhanced disclosure of income cover all individuals subject to disclosure under the Public Officer’s Law, not just legislators. The following reforms were passed in the budget:
Enhanced Disclosure of Outside Income by Lawmakers. Legislators, who are serving in occupations such as law or consulting, are now required to identify some of their clients but only those whom they take on new business for after December 31, 2015. However, the new act exempts disclosure of legislators’ clients in areas like criminal defense, bankruptcy, and domestic relations. If the lawmakers represent a minor, they will be required to disclose only the client’s initials. When they are representing a client in a matter such as an initial public offering in which confidentially is guaranteed by federal statute, they will submit the full names to a “locked box” maintained by the Office of Court Administration (“OCA”) that will be opened at a later date. Further, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (“JCOPE”) and OCA will have the authority to allow legislators to censor clients’ names when doing so might cause “an unnecessary invasion of privacy to the client” or “undue harm to the client.” Elected officials with clients will also need to identify what work they did on the client’s behalf. The language provides a list of sample descriptions, such as “reviewed documents and correspondence” or “prepared certified architectural or engineering renderings.”
Transfer of Certain Division of State Police Employees to OGS
In 2012, the Business Service Center within the Office of General Services was created to streamline financial and human resource transactions for State agencies. To complete the standing up of the Business Service Center, certain unclassified service employees must be transferred but such transfers can only be done through statutory authorization. The final Budget authorizes the transfer of certain Division of State Police employees engaged in certain finance, administrative, and human resources functions to the Business Service Center.