Albany’s Rigged Numbers Game

If you care about the finances of the state and city, sometimes you don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

A week ago, Albany and City Hall were preparing for a political steel-cage match pitting Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the taxpayers of New York against Albany’s special interests and their puppets in the State Legislature. At stake was about $200 million in the form of additional annual early-retirement pension benefits, which the union wanted and which City Hall opposed. Generally, these contests are one-sided affairs, since the unions can count on state legislators—especially those who “represent” (the word is used ironically) the city—to rubber-stamp whatever the unions want.

This time around, the unions wanted a bill that would have allowed some public employees to cash in on an early-retirement package that was offered more than a decade ago. The mayor said the bill would cost taxpayers $200 million a year. Legislators told the billionaire businessman turned politician that he didn’t know how to add: The bill would cost the city nothing. After all, legislators said, a genuine, nonpartisan, totally objective review of the bill showed conclusively that taxpayers would shoulder no new burdens. What a happy state of affairs! (Did we mention yet that the entire Legislature is up for reelection this year?)

Alas, for the would-be early retirees, their tee times may have to be pushed back. It turns out that the impartial analysis of the pension bill was carried out by an actuary who served as a consultant to … yes, the unions. The actuary, Jonathan Schwartz, said that he skewed his analysis in favor of the union position. “I got a little bit carried away in my formulation,” he told The New York Times, which broke the story about Mr. Schwartz’s work. It turns out Mr. Schwartz has analyzed hundreds of bills favored by public employee unions.

Here’s the part that will either provoke tears or a hearty chuckle: The legislators say they had no idea that Mr. Schwartz worked for the unions. Which means, of course, that they had no idea that the facts and figures they were tossing about were, to say the least, less than objective.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver quickly announced that the Assembly would halt consideration of the bills because of the flawed data. Mr. Silver seemed shocked indeed to learn of the shenanigans, but it’s fair to wonder if the real shocker is not that Mr. Schwartz was performing double duty, but that somebody actually noticed.

The real scandal here is not about Mr. Schwartz. It is about the intimate relationship between the Legislature and the public employee unions that rely on state lawmakers to hand out goodies at the expense of city taxpayers. It is hardly news to learn that lawmakers would happily do the bidding of these politically powerful unions. But it is troubling to realize that lawmakers did not pause to ask questions about the source of the data they were using to counter Mr. Bloomberg’s cost analysis.

In life, it is said, there are lies, damned lies and statistics. Albany has managed to combine all three. Quite a feat.

Albany’s Rigged Numbers Game