When New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo unveiled his pension reform proposal in January, few would have predicted that Stephanie Miner would become the plan’s chief critic.
After all, Cuomo and Miner, the mayor of Syracuse, are both Democrats. Miner, in fact, is the state Democratic Party co-chair, an assignment given to her last year by Cuomo. And early in her career, she worked for his father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo, as a regional representative in central New York.
None of that stopped Miner from penning an op-ed in The New York Times in February calling the current governor’s solution to rising pension costs “an accounting gimmick.” In essence, the proposal—now law—allows cities to contribute to their public employee pension funds at lower rates, so long as they agree to pay the outstanding amounts plus interest over 12 years. Instead, Miner argued, cities need their governor to assume a leadership role and convene state and local government leaders to address systemic problems plaguing municipal budgets.
“Everybody has to be at the table,” Miner says. “Everybody’s got to have part of the solution.”
To be sure, Syracuse could certainly use a pension holiday. Like many other upstate New York cities, Syracuse has suffered decades of job losses and population decline. Lawmakers in Albany have slashed subsidies to cities, with only an incremental increase this year. Since taking office in January 2010, Miner has cut her workforce by 10 percent. She’s privatized some city services and consolidated others with surrounding Onondaga County. Yet the city still faced a $18 million shortfall going into its 2013-2014 budget process.
Nonetheless, Miner thinks her city and others would ultimately be hurt by taking part in Cuomo’s pension plan, which she called in the Times “a path to insolvency. In fact, it was such fiscal recklessness that plunged New York City into a fiscal crisis in the mid-1970s.”
Miner’s dissent prompted Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy to suggest that Syracuse may need a financial control board—which would undermine much of Miner’s authority as mayor. Cuomo followed up with a speech to lawmakers in which he implied that cities’ idea of aid was more money from the state. Now that the proposal has become law, Miner has made it clear that Syracuse won’t participate.
“She’s become the de facto leader for local governments all around the state,” says Richard Ravitch, a former lieutenant governor of New York and a co-chair of the State Budget Crisis Task Force. Ravitch cautions against oversimplifying Miner’s critique as laying blame on Cuomo. It’s more of a plea for the governor’s help as the only person who can bring labor, state and city leaders to the same table, Ravitch says. Still, as he notes, most mayors “are afraid of saying anything that the governor may not like.”