Acknowledging the buzz of positive energy in the room, NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta prepared ED 51-53 delegates for their special guest — a man who has supported NYSUT through many challenges.
"They say friends were made for adversity," Pallotta said, turning to introduce the man at his side, "and in adversity, we have no greater friend in this state than Comptroller Tom DiNapoli."
Sole trustee of the NYSERS pension system and a board member of the State TRS, DiNapoli required no more introduction to earn a standing ovation from the 150 NYSUT retirees representing the contiguous election districts.
The annual meeting was chaired by At-Large Director Florence McCue and presented under the auspices of Vice President Paul Pecorale, who oversees NYSUT Retiree Services.
DiNapoli said he never misses an opportunity to express his appreciation to the women and men who made wonderful careers molding the young people who drive our economy today.
"I get angry to see so much in the media today disparaging teachers and disparaging public education," he said. He quoted historian and philosopher of education Jacques Barzun, who said, "Teaching is not a lost art, but the regard for it is a lost tradition."
The comptroller reported positive trends, but cautioned that much work remains. Unemployment is down and job creation is way up. But the bulk of the new jobs are in New York City. The challenge, he said, is "how to keep the economy growing and spread it across the state."
He credited NYSUT's leadership in achieving a $1.3 billion increase in state aid fpr public education this year, but noted the state must resolve the funding tied to the CFE court decision and to use the $7.5 billion windfall from the bank settlements responsibly.
"The bottom line is we're headed in the right direction," he said.
DiNapoli also said the public pension funds in the state are growing and reducing the required employer contributions. Healthy pension funds are good for everyone, he said.
"You as retirees are a very important part of the economic engine that keeps our economy growing," he said. Contrary to the popular misconception, eight of 10 retirees do NOT leave the state. The system paid out $10 billion last year and 80 percent of it stayed in New York, generating even more growth. When people criticize defined benefit pensions and public pensions in particular, there's an easy answer.
"It's good not only for you, but for many others in the state," he said. "We need to remind people our pension funds are healthy."
Earlier that day, NYSUT's Pete Savage presented a valuable talk on the required 2017 state referendum to ask voters if they want a Constitutional Convention.
This is a crucial issue and "we must start now to show voters why we do NOT want this referendum to succeed," he said.
A Constitutional Convention could introduce fundamental changes to the basic organizational structure for our state government, and those changes would depend on who takes control of the convention.
It could jeopardize rights we take for granted, such as the right to a free public education, protections for public pension benefits, rights to workers' comp, rights to be a member of a union and bargain collectively, and the state's obligation to provide for social welfare needs.
"The constitution sets the most important policy goals for the people of the state," Savage said, "and changes will affect every other law currently in place and would impact future statutes."
He said this must be a priority for all NYSUT members to start now and educate the public why they don't want to risk losing the constitution that guarantees our rights as we know them.
Barry Kaufmann, president of the New York State Association of Retired Americans, later addressed the conference and urged participants to stand up to the lies and rhetoric that big money right-wingers are spreading about government social programs — Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
Critics say the programs are unsustainable and will burden our children and grandchildren, but the opposite is true, Kaufmann said. The programs are solvent and will remain that way for generations, especially if Congress lifts the cap on Social Security contributions above the current maximum wage level of $118,000, no matter how much a person earns.
What can we do against the big money interests spreading the lies?
1. Register to vote, and get all your friends and relatives to register, as well.
2. Convince more retirees to vote their true interests, and not to believe the scary rhetoric.
3. Continue to be activists and encourage others to do more.
4. Educate yourself on the truth about Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, the Constitutional Convention, paid family leave, defined benefit pensions vs. defined contribution pensions.
5. Explode the myths and false rhetoric of the extreme right, including elected officials.
6. Become active in one of the regional chapters of NYSARA and continue activism in your NYSUT retiree council.