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As governor's salary increases, some state employees getting richer in retirement

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ALBANY — When former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo received a $25,000 raise in January — becoming the highest paid governor in the U.S. — the action simultaneously increased the pensions of approximately 375 state workers.

The bump in pension pay is exclusive to a top tier of members in the New York State Retirement System, which includes the likes of college sports coaches, SUNY hospital leaders and high-paid employees in the executive branch, whose salaries far exceed the governor’s but whose retirement benefits are capped based on the rate of pay for the governor.

In 2019, the Legislature, following the guidance of a state compensation committee, voted to increase the governor’s salary in steps from $179,000 to $250,000. Legislators and other statewide elected officials also saw their salaries increased that year.

The pension hike tethered to the governor’s salary does not account for future pensioners, but they will be able to put an additional amount of their salary toward their retirement funds.

Current state employees can retire with pensions as high as 60 percent of the governor’s salary. That means if an employee’s salary is equal to or more than the governor’s, their pensions can be as high as $150,000 a year. The amount is based on years of service, among other factors. 

“It’s equivalent to a multimillion dollar golden parachute guaranteed by the taxpayers,” said E.J. McMahon, senior fellow at the Empire Center for Public Policy and an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. 

The tier-based system includes six levels and the membership dates back to 1973. The highest is the sixth tier, which, according to Jennifer Freeman, a spokeswoman for the comptroller’s office, includes roughly 48 percent of state employees. 

Most of the state and government workers who have retired in the last decade, or will be retiring in the next, are tier 4 members. 
Yet, only a small number of state employees are entitled to have pensions up to 60 percent of the governor’s salary included in the calculation of their final average salary. 

“Most people in tier 6 have not earned enough pension credit to retire and they would need a number of years of employment to earn a pension as high as the governor’s salary,” Freeman said in a written statement to the Times Union. 

In 2020, 1,263 state workers, including 1,228 executive branch workers, were paid more than the governor. The highest earner was Dr. Robert Corona Jr., CEO of the State University of New York Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, who is paid $787,288 a year, according to the Empire Center. 

Three SUNY coaches were also included among the highest-paid state employees that year. Lance Leipold, Buffalo football coach, took home $686,845; the university’s basketball coach, James Whitesell, is paid $409,540 annually; and Stony Brook football Coach Charles Priore was paid $424,180.

The pension increase came after the state approved a 2 percent raise for tens of thousands of state government workers, including management confidential employees. 

Cuomo originally froze an annual raise for about 80,000 state workers by an executive order order issued in April 2020 as the economy crashed due to the pandemic shutdowns. Those raises have begun to be retroactively restored this year as the economy reopened and the pandemic subsided in New York.