Thingish Things

Triborough — The Billion Dollar Question

Written By: William F. B. O'Reilly - Feb• 01•11

For a short time after 9/11, nearly everyone in public office became magically imbued with deep national security expertise. When the Iraq War began, and then soured, those same public officials became experts in Islam and international affairs.  They could roll off their tongues and onto television sets every vowel in the names of cities like Al Diwaniyah and Sulaymaniyah, and identify a Sunni Muslim from a Shiite Muslim at 1,000 yards in a stiff wind.

Next came the economists.  Ten thousand mini Milton Friedmans and John Maynard Keyneses tussled over deficit spending on stages everywhere, supplanting the experts in subprime mortgage loans and credit default swaps who had to be dragged off stage by their ankles to make room.  (Some lost fingernails.  But it was a small price to pay for speaking truth to power.)

Now we are seeing state pension reform experts emerging – those with specialized knowledge in how to save underfunded pension plans from insolvency. They are popping up wherever state and municipal governments are in trouble. That includes New York, of course, where we seem to have no shortage of expertise in this area.  Who knew?

But alas, there is a simple question that can be asked to determine if these reformers are for real.  I didn’t know it.  I learned it from actual experts with whom I have been fortunate enough to work.  It is a test by the experts for the “experts”, if you will.

Here it is: “Do you support repeal of the Triborough Amendment?”

I know. The what???

What the heck is a Triborough Amendment? And shouldn’t it be called the RFK Amendment now?

It turns out this ridiculously named law lies at the core of New York State’s pension mess.  I can only surmise that it was called the Triborough Amendment because the “Don’t Look Under This Rug Amendment” was taken.

Triborough is unique to New York State, and it has nothing to do with a bridge.  It is a sneaky little amendment that was tucked into The Taylor Law in 1982 – the law that governs the ability of public service unions to strike. It forever-after rigged the negotiating process between unions and state and municipal governments in favor of the unions.

Triborough mandates that the contracts of unionized public employees remain in effect until new contracts are signed.  Whatever raises or benefits were in the old contract perpetually remain until agreement on a new contract is reached.

If you think about that for a minute, you’ll realize it’s madness.  It guarantees that any new union contract be more generous than the last one.  Why would the unions agree to anything is that is less generous?  By doing nothing, they are guaranteed more.  Consequently, the retirement benefits – all benefits – for public employees have grown better and better and more and more expensive, especially as the unions gained control of elected officials with political contributions paid for with union dues. In Buffalo, for example, teachers are entitled to cosmetic surgery.  And you can’t take that entitlement away under Triborough.

The amendment stripped state and local governments of any leverage to negotiate with public employees.  It gave the unions, as a nationally prominent economist described it to me yesterday, a fistful of aces at every state, city, county, town, and village negotiating table in New York.

Repeal of the Triborough Amendment is an obvious step that needs to be taken to save New York from insolvency, and possibly even bankruptcy.  But it’s also a litmus test that will expose posers from real reformers.  Elected officials in the pockets of the unions will never support repealing Triborough.  Those that are for real, will.

So the next time some smarty pants “expert” is talking at a town hall or on a call-in radio show about saving New York State, call him on the carpet.  Ask he supports repealing Triborough.  That’s how you’ll know.

You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


  1. Your Friend says:


    If unions account for only 7% of the work force and this amendment can only incrementally effect the salaries and benefits of union members, and by incrementally I mean the usual 3%, how can it possibly be responsible for the $10 billion gaping wound in the NY state economy? This leads me to the question at the heart of our state and national budget problems — should we raise taxes or create more homeless people? Your thoughts are always appreciated.

    – d

  2. It’s not the $10 billion gap. It’s the $100 billion and growing shortfall in the pension fund. The $10 billion is a walk in the park.

    • Your Friend says:

      Not according to the recent Pew Report on unfunded state pensions:

      New York is unfunded by $10 billion and that’s pretty good compared to the other states. But the question still stands, since only 25% ( I was wrong on that number, according to BLS) of NY state public employees are unionized, then only $2.5 billion of the unfunded pension can be “blamed” on unions. In other words, the state is underfunding for reasons that have nothing to do with unions. What are those reasons? Shrinking tax base. Are you ready to call for an increase in taxes, or more homelesss people?

      – d

  3. Harry Wilson wrote a brilliant paper on this. Explains this issue in enormous detail. The shortfall I am referring to has nothing to do with the $10 billion hole in our budget this year — it’s long-term pension obligation debt that is eating away at the budgets of the state and its municipalities. The paper can be read or downloaded here:

    Definitely worth reading.

  4. Your Friend says:

    Thanks, I’ll check it out. Looks like Mike B. is jumping right into the fray on this one. No wilting flower is he:

  5. […] teachers, because the unions will not forgo automatic pay raises mandated by New York’s pro-union Triborough Amendment to the Taylor Law.  According to the story,  spending on teachers in New York City has increased […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.