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Union backs off opposition to pension bill

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The state’s largest public-employee union has dropped its opposition to a bill that would restore pension benefits for 12 Jefferson County residents, clearing the most significant hurdle the bill had faced in the state Legislature.

The legislation, which would restore years of retirement benefits to employees of sub-agencies of the Jefferson County Industrial Development Agency, was scheduled to come up for a crucial vote in the Assembly Ways and Means Committee late Tuesday or early this morning. The state Civil Service Employees Association had opposed the bill. It’s slated for a vote in the state Senate on Thursday, the last day of the legislative calendar and potentially the last opportunity for the bill to be passed before the employees lose their retirement benefits.

“The fact that it’s moving in this house is an indication that we’ve been able to have them remove their opposition,” said Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa.

State Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, said she was “optimistic” about the bill’s chances in the Republican-controlled Senate.

The 12 employees were caught in financial limbo when Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli announced earlier this year that they should not have received pension credits in the years they had worked for IDA sub-agencies. The dispute was largely esoteric and revolved around whether the employees worked directly for the IDA or nonprofit organizations called local development corporations. But the dispute’s results were nothing short of catastrophic for the employees who had counted on the retirement plans for more than a decade, according to those employees and their supporters.

Supporters said it was only fair to restore the retirement benefits to the employees who were caught up in a 20-year-old mistake; but the CSEA, according to Mrs. Russell, thought the employees shouldn’t have until the end of the year to keep racking up credits (pension benefits become more lucrative the longer the employee is in the system). The bill was amended to restore the pension credits for the employees from the time that they’ve worked until Aug. 1, instead of the year’s end, as was originally proposed. That change helped quash the CSEA’s opposition, Mrs. Russell said. It could also complicate the IDA’s plans to figure out a new retirement system for its employees and its corporate structure.

The governing board of the Watertown Industrial Center, one of the LDCs whose employees could lose pensions, held an executive session on the pension issue Tuesday, but tabled taking action until the bill’s fate is known.

After the closed-door session, Donald W. Rutherford, the WIC board’s chairman and an employee of a separate LDC who could lose 12 years of pension benefits, suggested that WIC staff start looking for alternative pension coverage. A special meeting will be scheduled after votes in the Senate and Assembly.

The pension bill was one of several that lawmakers were discussing in the run-up to an orderly end of session, as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said this year’s would be. The last day of session is Thursday, and lawmakers are eager to get back to their home districts to focus on re-election campaigns. State law dictates that bills must sit on legislators’ desks for three days before they’re voted on, which meant Monday was a de facto deadline for legislation to be introduced or amended.

The other major effort afoot among the north country’s legislative delegation was a bill called Mark’s Law. Named for a Cape Vincent emergency medical technician who was killed in the line of duty in 2009, Mark’s Law would punish the murderers of first-responders with the same crime that applies to police officers’ murderers. But it hasn’t moved out of committee in the Assembly.

Mrs. Ritchie, who has spearheaded the legislation in Albany, said Tuesday it passed her chamber for a second time. The bill was amended slightly by Mrs. Russell, who said it was a technical change that would have no effect on its implications.

The fate of that bill is still up in the air. Mrs. Ritchie said she spoke with the chairman of the Assembly Codes Committee, Joseph R. Lentol, late last week. He told her the bill still had a chance of passage, she said.

“He told me that there was still hope, and that there’s a possibility it may pass the last week of session,” Mrs. Ritchie said.

Times staff writer Craig Fox contributed to this report.

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