ALBANY — The third time is the charm, it seems, for public service employees who have also served in our armed forces — legislation allowing them to count at least some of that time toward their state pension benefits was signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday, March 31, after he vetoed similar legislation in 2014 and 2015.
The bill, which passed both houses of the state legislature in early May, will allow New York state employees to receive credit in the state pension system for time they spent serving in the armed forces. Previously, only veterans who served in certain conflicts have been extended the option to buy back pension credit.
“If you served in Iraq, you were likely able to claim your time,” said Carl Strang, a 30-year employee of New York’s public school system and former tank platoon leader who served in Germany during the Cold War. “But if you served in Afghanistan, you weren’t. It was kind of a hodgepodge of legislation and rules that had been put together over about 20 years or so.”
Essentially, the now-amended legislation only granted the pension buy back option to those who served “in the theater of operations” in the Middle East, Grenada and Panama, after May of 1975—prior designated wartime periods didn’t specify where on earth the service member was deployed; it also required the qualifying recipient to produce an expeditionary medal as proof.
The new legislation simply removed the restrictions on dates and locations of service, as well as any mention of expeditionary medals. Proponents of the change say that the changes have removed innate discrimination—against both service women who have previously been restricted from certain combat assignments and service members who fought in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo or Serbia during the current national wartime. It has also become available to veterans like Strang, who spent his military service in Europe after 1975. The service member must still have received an honorable discharge and have spent at least five years of credited service.
“You still have to make your personal financial contribution to the fund,” said Strang, noting that, in some cases, that could add up to a significant percentage of one’s annual income. “And, based on where someone is in their career, it may not always make sense. It’s very individual in terms of the amount of time you have invested in a system and value accrued; there are a lot of things to take into account. Not everyone is going to want to participate.
“When it comes to me,” he said, however, “it makes great sense to do it.” Strang, who is planning to retire from public service on the first of next month, has plans to take advantage of the additional financial resources and, with his wife, devote some of their time to volunteering with local veterans affairs services. “But.” he added, “I know other veterans who don’t care to take advantage of it, yet still say they feel respected now that this bill has been passed.
“It’s really a matter of respect for public service,” said Strang. “It’s an all-volunteer armed forces we have now. We’re not looking for an advantage, we simply don’t want to be disadvantaged.” When members of the armed forces return home to pursue public service careers, said Strang, they should not have to fall behind others who chose to begin their public service careers closer to home.
“The governor seems to be showing a little more maturity in his job now,” continued Strang. Referring to the governor’s first two vetoes, he called Cuomo’s response “tremendously insulting,” but conceded that, “the state is doing an increasingly better job of hiring veterans — especially service-disabled veterans. Until now, some of those service-disabled veterans were unable to buy back their public service pensions.”
“We’ve been able to expand this program to help all men and women who have worn the uniform and gone on to serve New York state,” said State Assemblyman Phil Steck (D-110), who sponsored the legislation all three years. “This law honors the men and women in the state workforce who chose to serve our country in uniform. It is fitting that this bill removing an obstacle to that service is signed into law following a holiday weekend meant to remind us of the sacrifice that being a service member can entail. I applaud the governor on his decision and commend my colleagues for helping pass this important legislation.”
While Steck declined to speculate as to what changed the governor’s mind, he did note that the governor’s message stated that he was signing the bill contingent on funding being appropriated in next year’s budget to support the law. The Assembly, he said, anticipates that will be accomplished.