The MTA’s pension and benefits problemsBy
When the MTA Board passed a new fare structure earlier this week, the leaders of the transit agency stressed the fact that the so-called cuts to the public — fewer trains, less frequent service — would be voted down soon as well. The officials though also made clear that numerous positions within the MTA would not be filled. The station agent program, in particular, is slated for termination, and with it comes the elimination of over 800 jobs.
While many of these spots will be flat-out eliminated, a good number of MTA positions will be eliminated through attrition. As workers retire, the positions will remain vacant, not to be filled until and unless the MTA finds a sound financial footing.
This is an interesting way to eliminate jobs, but there is seemingly more at work than simply a reduction in workforce. Some MTA watchers believe this reduction-by-attrition method says more about the MTA’s future pensive obligations than anything else.
Nicole Gelinas is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and an editor at City Journal. For the last few months, she — and few other transit watchers — has tackled the uncomfortable issue of the labor unions’ relationships with the MTA. Gelinas feels that much of the MTA’s supposed Doomsday could have been avoided had the transportation authority been willing to take a harder line in negotiations with its workers.
Most recently, Gelinas tackled just that topic in a Wall Street Journal column. She wrote:
The blunt truth is that New York City and state spent the good years giving its public employees generous raises, without asking for benefits concessions in return. City benefits costs, too, have piled up to an unsustainable $13 billion annually. That’s a third of the city’s tax revenue. Political leaders did nothing about it. When the transit union went on strike nearly four years ago to protect its pension benefits, Gov. George Pataki caved in and kept the status quo.
Gov. David Paterson and Gov. Pataki before him (let’s just leave out the farce of Eliot Spitzer) didn’t even need the unions’ cooperation to reduce pensions costs for new workers. Lawmakers could have passed legislation that would have cut benefits and increased contributions without union input. They didn’t.
Instead the state expanded its Medicaid program, which now costs the city $5.6 billion a year, up 44% over the past seven years. The city, under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, similarly ramped up education spending by 70% to nearly $21 billion. Education spending has shot up 42% faster than spending on the MTA, even though public-school enrollment shrank while MTA ridership soared.
This April column is but the tip of the iceberg. In December, Gelinas called upon transit unions to sacrifice some of the financial upper hand. She wants the union workers to contribute more to their pension and health care plans and believes that a wage freeze would not be inappropriate. In March, she wrote about runaway pension costs.
The real issue here is one of a political cognitive dissonance. New Yorkers are, by and large, pro-labor, pro-union Democrats. Gelinas raises issues that don’t fit that bill, but they are ones transit advocates should consider. At a time when everyone else is being asked to shoulder the costs of our transit system, shouldn’t the unions contribute as well?