New York is home to nearly 900,000 veterans. As these veterans have returned home from their service either domestically or in foreign lands, many have chosen a career in public sector work. The state has treated these veterans very well in most cases, offering property tax exemptions and points on civil service examinations in addition to other benefits.
However, one New York State law that has been on the books since 2000 has served only to divide and frustrate many of the state’s veterans working in public sector service.
Article 20 of New York State Retirement and Social Security Law allows certain honorably discharged veterans working in the public sector the opportunity to purchase up to three years of military service to credit their pensions. However, the law in its current form excludes all peacetime veterans. It also excludes many veterans who served in designated periods of conflict.
A soldier who participated in the invasion of Grenada in 1983 is eligible for the pension buy back program. A soldier who served near the demilitarized zone of Korea after the Korean War is not. An airman who served domestically during the Vietnam War is eligible for the program. An airman who served in Turkey during Desert Storm is not.
As a Cold War and Desert Storm era veteran, I myself am currently precluded from purchasing my military years of service under the current rules.
The law in its present form simply makes no sense and was obviously drafted by Albany’s most bureaucratic and out-of-touch government officials of a bygone era.
A6974/S4714, a bill currently in committee in both houses of the New York State Legislature, is gaining co-sponsors every day and has the backing of an interesting coalition of lawmakers. It was introduced in the Assembly by Amy Paulin, a Democrat, and in the Senate by William Larkin, a Republican. The bill has the support of progressive liberals and fiscal conservatives in both houses of the New York State Legislature.
However, it is by no means a sure thing. New York, like the rest of the nation, is grappling with the soaring cost of public sector pensions both statewide and at the municipal level. Governor Cuomo recently succeeded in securing an important first step in pension reform in the Empire State with the introduction of a Tier Six for public sector workers. It is a far more fiscally sustainable and far less generous tier for the newest civil service employees of New York.
Some government officials fear the potential cost to New York State and its equally cash strapped local governments. An Article 20 eligible veteran pays three or six percent of his or her average salary for each year bought back (depending on the veteran’s tier in the retirement system), with the remainder of any costs picked up by the state or the municipality that employs the veteran.
Most reasonable New Yorkers, including several lawmakers, agree that it is time to change the law and make it inclusive of all of the state’s honorably discharged veterans working in the public sector. There have been numerous attempts previously to fix Article 20 in the legislature. These bills have mostly failed to even make it out of committee. Only once did the New York State Assembly pass legislation similar to A6974/S4714.
Veterans do have several factors in their favor, though. 2014 is a very important election year in New York. Governor Cuomo and the entire New York State Legislature are preparing to make their cases to New Yorkers as to why they deserve to be reelected. None of them, no matter how safe they currently appear to be, want to be seen as alienating the men and women who have served the nation and the state so selflessly and honorably.
Further, New York State is known as a leader in the nation on issues of civil rights and social justice. Governor Cuomo has championed the causes of marriage equality and fairness in taxation. Denying several of its public sector veterans Article 20 eligibility, yet having demanded payment of New York State taxes during the course of their service seems inherently unfair. So does placing veterans into classes based upon criteria completely out of each veteran’s control.
It doesn’t matter what motivates the politicians in Albany to correct this ill-conceived and poorly written law. 2014 must be the year to finally right a terrible wrong, and to recognize and reward the military service of all of New York’s veterans working in the public sector.