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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, May 19, 2011

With conservative ardor, Cavanagh pushes resolution to stop unfunded mandates

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

BERNE — Tom Cavanagh always wears an American flag do-rag. “I show the colors because a lot of people are not proud of being American,” he said.

 Raised on Long Island, Cavanagh has been enrolled as a Republican since he was 18.  “As a kid, my father sat me in front of the TV to watch the news every day,” he said.

Cavanagh says he was also inspired by his aunt, a housewife who became an activist. “If she saw something wrong, she took the politician to task,” he said.

He’s shifted his locale — living now on Warners Lake in the Helderbergs — and his allegiances — he scoffs at the thought that he once campaigned for Alfonse D’Amato — but he’s kept his ardor for political causes.

He’s worked as a chef and says he’s cooked for such notable clients as Telly Savalas, Bill Moyers, and the New York Islanders.

Currently, he’s consumed with a commitment to conservatism. In 2010, he helped organize the Hilltowns Homefront Patriots, a Tea Party group. Later that year, before the Republican primary for governor, Cavanagh staged a one-man hunger strike in front of the New York City offices of Sean Hannity, the conservative political commentator, because Hannity had interviewed Rick Lazio but not Carl Paladino.

“I blame both the Republicans and the Democrats for the mess we’re in,” said Cavanagh this week.

He’s gotten training at the Leadership Institute in Virginia, which was founded in 1979 by Morton Blackwell to increase the number and effectiveness of conservative activists in influencing public policy.

Right now, Cavanagh is crisscrossing the state as a member of the Upstate Conservative Coalition, garnering support for a movement to stop unfunded mandates.

“I have a brand new Suzuki SX4, and in four months I’ve put 35,000 miles on it,” he said. “I’ve been from Buffalo to Long Island.”


On Monday, Cavanagh will be in Berne, trying to convince the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School Board, which on Tuesday suffered a budget defeat for the second year in a row, to pass a non-binding resolution to ask for relief from unfunded mandates.

He has as a model the resolution drafted by the Westchester-Putnam School Boards Association. The association represents 54 school districts; 33 have adopted the resolution, which asks that the governor and the legislators in the senate and assembly “reform the cost drivers that lead to high property taxes in New York — including mandate relief, pension benefits and the collective bargaining process — as the central element of an effort to provide property tax relief to the residents and businesses of New York State.”

Governor Andrew Cuomo was elected in a landslide on a campaign platform that included a 2-percent cap on local tax levies. He is currently pushing for the cap in tours about the state. Soon after being elected, Cuomo set up a Mandate Relief Redesign Team charged with reviewing underfunded and unfunded state mandates. Cuomo’s latest proposal, to reduce pensions for new hires, was criticized by union leaders.

The Westchester-Putnam resolution points out that one of the biggest reasons for school and municipal budget increases is the ballooning costs for the State Retirement System, set to increase 40 percent, and the Teachers’ Retirement System, set to increase 33 percent in the 2011-12 school year.

The resolution also references the Triborough Amendment to the Taylor Law, which allows union members who as public employees are not allowed to strike, to continue to get step increases in an expired contract until a new one is agreed upon.

“The buck stops at the property tax”

Assemblyman John McEneny, who represents most of Albany County, said this week, “The tax cap is a sound byte; they always sound good till you look at them. The devil is always in the details.”

When costs are cut, services are cut, he said, which may undermine property values. McEneny said he’s not a fan of property taxes but would prefer a limit that would be a set amount of a home’s fair-market value.

While the State Senate has been more supportive of Cuomo’s plan, McEneny said, “Many of us in the Assembly support a tax cap that is reasonable, recognizing the realities. No one in the governor’s office has a list of mandates that will be reduced or provided for by New York State.”

McEneny referenced the comprehensive list of various mandates compiled by the New York State School Boards Association. “There are some on health and safety that you’d never want to get rid of,” he said. “There are some on maintenance that are variable,” he went on, citing the example of a school bus that could be well cared for and driven for longer than mandated.

McEneny also referenced the governor’s recent pension proposals and spoke about the state’s system from a long-time personal perspective. State government pensions, he said, used to be comparable to what was offered by major American employers in the private sector — companies like IBM or Ford.

“It’s not that the government has changed; the private sector has changed,” said McEneny. Government pensions only look large now because private companies have cut back on theirs.

Pensions are guaranteed by the state and national constitutions. “A contract is a contract,” said McEneny.

Pension plans have been cut several times as each new tier is added. “We’re now up to Tier 5,” said McEneny, “and each offers less than the tier before.”

Health insurance is not guaranteed. McEneny recalled that, when he started government work in 1965, he paid $8 a month in health insurance. Then, in the mid-1970s, when he oversaw employees for the city of Albany, he recalled health-insurance costs for a single worker were $19 a month and for a family plan, the cost was $39 a month.

The cost is now more than 10 times that.

“I agree with local governments and school boards saying, ‘What are you giving in mandate relief?’ The governor says, later. I’d like to see a clear indication in advance. If the mandate relief is not there,” said McEneny, “it will mean a reduction in the quality of education and government service.”

He concluded, “The big guys — the federal and state governments — have cut aid to the governments below them. The buck stops at the property tax.”

What next?

Cavanagh says the next step, after getting school boards involved, is to go to county governments. Municipal governments also tax their residents for mandates handed down by the state.

“School boards and county legislators are the fall guys,” said Cavanagh. “They are our schools. They are our counties. The state has no right to impose unfunded mandates….We have to stop the bleeding.”

He concluded that he likes working on this cause because it’s “non-confrontational.”

“I’m not going after the teachers,” he said. “I’m not going after the school boards. Everyone I talk to, they agree.”

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