‘New Amsterdam’ has a nice upstate ring to it

Recently, at an anti-SAFE Act rally at the Johnstown Gloversville Holiday Inn, Assemblyman Marc Butler, R-Herkimer, talked about his proposal to split the controversial state gun law into New York City and then the rest of the state.

Butler’s bill would repeal 13 sections of the SAFE Act for the areas outside of New York City, including provisions such as the prohibition on allowing people to bequeath certain types of guns upon dying. Some provisions, such as the felony possession of a firearm, would have to remain in place no matter what because you can’t have something be a felony in one part of a state and not in another. Butler said so far, 11,500 people have been charged under the SAFE Act and of them, 83 percent were charged under the felony illegal possession of a firearm provision and 81 percent of those arrests were in New York City.

Butler said he was inspired to consider splitting the non-felony rules of the SAFE Act into an upstate and downstate system in part from the state’s reform of the minimum wage, which increases the wage at different rates and on a different schedule upstate and downstate.

“I guess my position is we could be more sensitive to the regions with this legislation. We see many bills that come to us that exempt cities with populations greater than 1 million, well that’s legislative code for New York City,” Butler said. “They don’t think they have to abide by the Wicks Law. New York City doesn’t have to do this, they don’t have to that. How about upstate be exempt from some of these ridiculous things? As the demographics shift — with their increasing population — I only see the situation getting worse, giving them more clout and imposing their will on us.”

This approach of Butler’s got me thinking about the great divide between upstate and downstate New York. As I’ve pointed out in the past, many of the people living in our area, if they could choose, would seemingly dearly love it if they lived in the Deep South. The politics of most of New York state north of, say, Poughkeepsie is that of a very red state, probably with more in common with Kentucky or West Virginia than our neighbors to the east, Vermont. But as long as New York state remains one political entity, the politics of downstate will forever dominate Albany. Downstate has most of the people, and they, by far, pay for most of state government, about 72.5 percent of it between New York City and its suburbs. This has advantages and disadvantages.

“There’s no doubt about it that the financial breakdown certainly works in our favor upstate. there’s no question about that,” Butler said. “But, if we were to guide our own fate, a lot of these regulations — the high taxes that are discouraging businesses — we might be able to develop a more vigorous economy, if we could be masters of our own fate instead of constantly coming under the dictates of New York City.”

One area where downstate domination is clearly a disadvantage locally is in Medicaid spending. New York state is one of the few states that still requires a local share of the cost of Medicaid, and it’s a major burden on our local counties because we have so many poor recipients of the program and such an impoverished property tax base to pay the local share. Medicaid spending accounts for 50 percent of the Fulton County property tax levy and 42 percent of Montgomery County’s levy. I don’t know if more money comes into our counties, from the federal government and the state, than would come in if upstate could chart its own course on Medicaid, but I’m certain property taxes would be lower without downstate’s support for many of the optional aspects of the program.

Another area which is more ambiguous is in our very high public employee salaries and benefits. It’s my contention that public employees in New York state are paid considerably more than the same jobs in most other states largely because Manhattan is an island that was once choked by a labor dispute involving its Triborough Bridge. After a court ruling, later codified by the state Legislature, the Triborough Amendment to the Taylor Law came into being, guaranteeing that all of the provisions of a public employee union contract remain in place even after the term of the contract has expired until a new deal is agreed to by both sides. I think that law, more than anything else, accounts for the continual increases in public employee pay, because the unions simply never have to give up anything if they don’t want to, including their ‘step raises’, minimum-. manning clauses and sometimes very costly antiquated health insurance policies.

CSEA Capital Region President Ron Briggs, in these pages, has argued that one of the key aspects of the Triborough Amendment is that public employees give up the right to strike, but that isn’t quite true. It would be more accurate to say Triborough compensates them for not having the right to strike. The truth, as Briggs should know, is New York state’s Taylor Law always prohibited public employees from striking, long before it was amended by Triborough. Not being able to strike was what public employees gave up in order to get the right to unionize in New York state, which happened in 1968. Public employees have no federal right to unionize, they were specifically exempted from the U.S. National Labor Relations Act of 1935. Before the Taylor Law was passed, it was illegal for public employees to unionize, and thus it has always been illegal for public employees to strike.

I mention all of this because it would seem to me that upstate and downstate versions of the Taylor Law might also be a good reform. It could avoid absurdities like New York City-level starting salaries for some public employee positions here in Fulton County, one of the poorest places in the United States.

In November, voters in New York state will get a chance to decide whether or not to hold a New York state convention. One of the possible ideas that could be on the table at such a convention is the idea of splitting the state into two autonomous regions, upstate becoming, “New Amsterdam.”

Presumably in New Amsterdam, liberated to chart our own course, we would abandon the Triborough absurdity and the high taxes that come with it.

But I don’t know, this is a tricky one. At least a solid chunk of the 300 people who came out to hear Butler speak about the SAFE Act are proud local public employee union members, and I suspect a lot of them might even support a formal upstate and downstate split, without realizing the great cost to themselves that might come with it.

The national median teacher’s salary in the U.S. is $57,200 a year. In New York state, it’s $79,720. The national median firefighter wage is $46,870, in New York state, in 2014, it was $80,150. The national median police officer wage is $60,270, in New York state, it’s $69,140.

And, if you look at the southern states, the ones with less stringent gun laws, you’ll see even lower salaries than the national medians.

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