While it’s safe to say Republican gubernatorial candidate U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin and incumbent Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul certainly disagree on many issues, allowing state and local public employees to become fully vested in their state pension plans after only five years of service does not appear to be one of them.
During campaign stops in Johnstown, Glenville and other locations Saturday, Zeldin talked about issues where he says he disagrees with Hohcul, including state taxes he wants to lower, his support for a complete repeal of the state’s bail and discovery reform law, his desire to completely eliminate Hochul’s COVID-19 vaccine mandates, and his support for reforming New York state’s ban on fracking for natural gas in the Marcellus/Utica Shale.
But when asked about the five-year state pension vesting plan Hochul signed into law as part of the 2022-23 New York state budget, Zeldin offered no criticism or opposition.
“If that’s what makes the most amount of sense, than that’s something that should be done,” he said, but then added, “I’m not going to close the door here, months out before taking office, if somebody has a better idea of what makes the most amount of sense. It’s about, first and foremost, the people of New York, the services that the government provides, the manpower needs that they have, the asks that they have.”
Hochul’s little talked about pension reform answers an “ask” state public employee unions have been lobbying for in Albany for years by cutting in half the 10-years-of-service requirement for public employees in Tier V and VI of the state pension system before they can become “fully vested” in the plan. Being fully vested means they can retire with full pension benefits paid out to them based on a percentage of their highest earning years on an annual basis every year for the rest of their lives.
The 10-year vesting rule was put in place by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2012 as part of a reform Cuomo argued would save taxpayers $80 billion dollars over the next 30 years by helping to reduce the state’s gigantic pension liability. Public employee state pensions are currently paid for by well-capitalized pension funds, but they are also guaranteed to retired public employees by the New York state constitution, putting state taxpayers on the hook should those pension funds ever become too depleted to meet their pay-out obligations.
Under the 10-year rule state and local public employees who left their jobs before ten years of service would not receive pensions, a reform the conservative think tank the Empire Center estimates saved local governments outside of New York city “more than $1 billion” in 2021 alone.
Hochul’s reversal of the Cuomo-era reform has received praise by the state’s influential public employee unions, but also criticism from fiscal conservatives.
Zeldin, who was a New York state senator before being elected to congress, on Saturday said he’s currently more familiar with the federal pension system, which also has five-year vesting, which “seems to be working out well.”
Zeldin said he wasn’t going to negotiate any state labor contracts or state budgets while answering questions from reporters on Saturday, but he said in principle he believes the state government needs to look at an entire package of issues in order to improve “recruitment and retention” of its workforce, including whether the state should pay for “additional educational opportunities”, looking at healthcare benefits, exploring the possibility for some public employees “in some cases to successfully work remotely”, as well as restoring jobs to employees who defied Hochul’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, and providing them “with back pay.”
“As far as the asks that come from the state workforce, I would not look at each of these issues individually (but instead) as (they) relate to the entire package,” he said. “One [state] agency might have an ask related to consulting agreements, and the inability to be able to hire folks and replace outgoing workers — I’m open to every conversation. When [state Sen.] Jim Tedisco comes to me and says that there’s an idea that makes the most amount of sense for the state workforce in his district, and for all of the constituents in his district that they serve, that’s going to be what I have a strong deference towards.”
Zeldin on Saturday spoke before crowds of about 50 people each who came out to see him despite 90 degree temperatures in Fulton and Schenectady counties. He said it’s obvious New York state has serious problems with retaining people from leaving for other states and major difficulties with maintaining its public employee workforce on the state and local level. He vowed to improve both if elected.
“I’m going to tell you something you know already, our state’s in bad shape,” he said. “Everyday, wherever I go, I have people telling me ‘if you don’t win, I’m gone.'”
State Sen. Jim Tedisco, who is running for election in the 44th senate district, attended Zeldin’s rally in Glenville. He said he voted for the 2022-23 state budget and he supports the five-year vesting plan for state pension recipients.
“I think we have to incentivize people to work for the state in order to get good people, and the harder we make it for them to be attracted to do that type of work the more difficulty we’ll have,” Tedisco said.
“We have a lot of state workers in this area, and what we also have to do is have a cost of living adjustment for those who have retired. We have inflation that’s the worst it’s been in 40 years. Gasoline is $5 a gallon. (Some retirees) have problems making their mortgage payments, the ones still paying their mortgages, although many of them have paid for their homes but can’t pay their taxes because transportation costs, the costs of groceries and goods and services have compounded.”
The five-year vesting rule applies to all public employees eligible for New York state pensions under Tier V and VI as well as local fire fighters and local police.
Zeldin’s campaign has aggressively courted support from members of law enforcement. On Saturday he said if he is elected governor he will “back the blue” and enact a “Law Enforcement Bill of Rights.”
“We need to recognize what is an inherent right of self defense,” Zeldin said of police. “We have to make sure they have all of the tools and resources they need to do their jobs safely and effectively. We have to make sure they’re not unfairly targeted by investigations. We have to get this Law Enforcement Bill of Rights passed. Other states have done it, and New York needs to do it next.”
ALLEGED ATTACK DISCUSSED
During his campaign stops in Johnstown and Glenville Saturday, Zeldin also discussed some hand-to-hand self defense tactics he said he was forced to use when a man named David Jakubonis, 43, allegedly attacked him after his speech at the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in the town of Perinton, outside of Rochester, on Thursday.
Zeldin said Jakubonis brandished a “claw” like keychain device with sharp points towards his neck and repeatedly told him “You’re done, you’re done.” Zeldin then used the karate skills he said he learned thanks to lessons paid for by his mother to grab Jakubonis’ wrist before his running mate Alison Esposito, a retiring deputy inspector for the New York City Police Department, and others, helped wrestle the man to the ground.
After the incident, Jakubonis was charged with second-degree attempted assault by Monroe County Sheriff’s deputies, a crime not eligible for cash bail in New York state, prompting him to be released after being processed.
Zeldin has incorporated the alleged attack into his campaign stump speeches blasting New York state’s bail reform law, which he has vowed to fully repeal if elected governor, but on Saturday he also said he believes Jakubonis should have been charged with a more severe crime.
“If I were take off my position as a member of congress, candidate for governor, if I was to put on a prosecutorial hat — which I’m not wearing right now, but if I was to put one on — I would offer that there were elements that could get met for a more severe charge,” Zeldin said.
Zeldin, who is the criminal complainant in the case, said he did not give the Monroe County Sheriff’s any recommendation for what the charge should be against Jakubonis. He praised the Monroe County Sheriff’s efforts, but also said they “had a lot on their plate that day.”
“I did not recommend a charge. They did it without my recommendation. I did not make a recommendation,” Zeldin said. “They didn’t ask me what should [they] charge. They asked me, ‘Do you believe he should be arrested?'”
Even though he said he didn’t recommend a specific charge, and most violent crimes charged in New York state are eligible for cash bail, he said he guessed immediately that Jakubonis would be released.
“I knew that he should be arrested, but I did not believe that he should have been immediately released due to cashless bail,” Zeldin said. “A decision was made, independent of a recommendation from a former prosecutor, but I did state that I believe that he needed to get arrested, and I did state, right out of the gate, that I don’t believe that should be immediately released back out onto the streets.”
Jakubonis was released without any bail because second-degree attempted assault is a charge that is not bail-eligible under New York state’s 2019 bail and discovery reform law.
Although the bail reform has itself been reformed twice since going into effect in 2020, and does give judges the option to set bail in nearly all cases involving violent felonies, there are still exceptions for certain attempted felonies, including the second-degree attempted assault charge chosen by the Monroe County Sheriff’s deputies.
Since his initial arrest and release, Jakubonis has been re-arrested and charged with the federal crime of assaulting a member of congress using a dangerous weapon.
During Zeldin’s stop in the city of Johnstown Saturday, Fulton County Sheriff Richard Giardino said Jakubonis could have received a more severe charge in his jurisdiction, one that was bail eligible.
“Just based on what I saw, and what I know, they could have charged him with Attempted Assault 1st, which would have been a C violent felony, and would have been bail eligible,” said Giardino, who also previously served as judge and district attorney in Fulton County.
A video of the incident shows Jakubonis, wearing a hat indicating he was a veteran, raising his arm toward Zeldin as he holds a cat-shaped keychain device.
Giardino, who has also been critical of New York state’s bail and discovery reform, said the facts he saw in the video lead him to conclude a more serious charge should have been made in the case.
“The thing he had in his hand was a dangerous instrument, and it could have caused death if it hit his neck, so that surprised me a bit,” Giardino said, regarding the second-degree attempted assault charge.
Esposito said Zeldin is a fighter and the training he received during his time in the U.S. Army served him well during the attack.
Since his federal arrest, court documents show Jakubonis has told investigators he’d been drinking that day and didn’t know who the congressman was. Jakubonis’s remarks are summarized in a federal criminal complaint filed Saturday. Jakubonis was scheduled to appear in court Saturday in Rochester to face a count of assaulting a member of Congress with a dangerous weapon. Authorities say Jakubonis told investigators he went onstage to ask the speaker if he was disrespecting veterans.
Both Zeldin and Esposito said the incident was not just an attack on their campaign, but an assault on freedom of speech itself. They both said political violence of any kind must be condemned by every candidate for office, and that it has no place in American politics.
The alleged incident has been condemned by Hochul and by President Joe Biden.
The Associated Press contributed to this story