Gov. Kathy Hochul has vetoed a bill for a second time that would allow environmental, park and university police be eligible for retirement after 20 years like other police officers in New York.
In her veto message, the governor said the legislation was more appropriate for the state budget. Those negotiations will begin after Hochul delivers her State of the State address on Tuesday.
Union leaders in the Police Benevolent Association of New York State communicated with Hochul's staff throughout last year, and are disappointed and surprised she vetoed the bill for a second time for the same reason.
"We felt it would be a great way to help retain and diversify our police by not spending a lot of money to train these people and then have them leave," said James McCartney, president of the Police Benevolent Association of New York State.
There's more than 1,100 environmental conservation officers, forest rangers and park and university police officers across the state — a number that continues to decline faster than the state can replace them. The PBA makes up the 3% of officers in the state that work 25 years before they're eligible to retire, or an additional five years compared to other police, which union leaders say is contributing to their staffing crises.
Union members and lawmakers remain optimistic they'll successfully push Hochul or legislative leaders to include it in the state's budget for the 2023-24 fiscal year.
"If we want to be fiscally responsible, we believe putting it in the budget would be a cost saving for New York state residents because we're like a revolving door, currently," McCartney said.
The officers that protect New York's parks and public universities specialize in rescue training. Hochul deployed about 110 PBA officers to assist with rescues in the two historic snowstorms that recently devastated Western New York.
Their fight for a 20-year retirement like other law enforcement has persisted for nearly a decade.
Bill sponsor Sen. Robert Jackson says it makes sense that many officers leave for other agencies for a better pension plan for their families.
"When opportunity comes for them to move from a 25-year pension plan to a 20, what would you do?" the Manhattan Democrat said in the state Capitol this week.
Jackson says he'll push hard for the change in the next state budget, which is flush with cash.
He cited State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli's touting this week of the state's strong pension fund, adding with an annual cost of $7 million, there's plenty in the state's $220 billion spending plan — especially after lawmakers just got a 30% pay increase.
"We're willing to do it in the budget if she is," Jackson said. "And the question is if she's just talking to be talking, then that's a different story.
"... All the governor has to do is say 'Yes, I see what's happening.'"
If the governor and legislative leaders don't include it in their state budget, Jackson added he'll reintroduce the bill that already passed twice.
With continuing bipartisan support, union leaders and lawmakers agree: The decision rests with the governor.
"The Hochul Administration is in communication with the PBA and we will continue to work with them to meet the state's staffing needs," according to a statement from a spokesperson with Hochul's office.
Last year, Hochul announced pay increases to retain DEC environmental conservation police officers, forest rangers and parks police.
The state spends up to $125,000 to train and equip each park ranger and university police officer in their first year of service. Of the 38 park police that graduated out of the most recent academy this fall, union leaders say three have already left for other law enforcement agencies.
Most officers who leave the PBA for other agencies cite the disparity in the retirement system as their reason for departure in their exit interviews.
The Democrats hold a supermajority in both houses of the Legislature, meaning they have the numbers to override the governor's vetoes. Several lawmakers say that's not on the table, especially after Hochul signed the legislation last week to increase their annual salaries to $142,000 — the highest of any state Legislature in the nation.
Lawmakers and union leaders say they'll be in contact with Hochul's office after her State of the State address.
Hochul's office lacks a point person for labor issues, unlike the prior administration, making it more difficult to properly communicate and discuss details and data with the governor's team, according to the PBA.
The governor's office did not answer a question about when that would change.