The lawmaker behind the latest effort in Albany to sweeten public employee pensions is a 59-year-old of Brooklyn who collects toy trains, writes restaurant reviews, and aspires to run for Congress.
Even at a time when state fiscal watchers warn of pension bombs, billions of dollars of unfunded liabilities, and untenable growth of government, Assemblyman Peter Abbate Jr. has quietly thrived as Albany's steady ally of public employee unions.
As a legislator, Mr. Abbate, the son of a letter carrier and a department store worker, has cultivated two distinct profiles.
To his Dyker Heights constituents, the Democrat is "Assemblyman Pothole." His relationship with his district — an elderly and Italian demographic — is personal, typified by the Memorial Day barbecue he throws every year at his home. Over the holiday weekend, his staff and volunteers walk around the neighborhood and give invitations to residents who hang American flags outside their homes.
The sidewalk glad-handing, the community board meetings, the neighborhood festivals (such as last week's "senior citizen prom") encompass what Mr. Abbate says are his favorite parts of the job. When he's not working, Mr. Abbate tends to his Lionel model train collection, which numbers more than 100 cars, and occasionally tosses off a restaurant review for a local paper.
His middle-class credentials and strong standing within the county party apparatus have made him a leading possible contender to take on scandal-damaged Rep. Vito Fossella in the 13th congressional district. "A lot of people have spoken to me about it," the assemblyman said.
In Albany, Mr. Abbate's role is less personal and more functional. His Capitol office serves as the primary receptacle for hundreds of pieces of legislation drafted by labor unions.
Each year, Mr. Abbate, the chairman of the Assembly's committee on governmental employees, introduces hundreds of bills — the great majority of which are drafted almost in their entirety by public sector labor unions.
At the behest of labor lobbyists, Mr. Abbate has attached his name to the most costly bills before the Legislature: pension sweeteners, early retirement provisions, collective bargaining enhancements, and expansions of health benefits. One early retirement bill he introduced this year would alone cost taxpayers $200 million a year, according to New York City officials.
More than a dozen of his measures have drawn protests from Mayor Bloomberg, whose Albany lobbying office late last month sent a memo to lawmakers to try to put a stop to them.
"We believe the enactment of any of the following bills ... would violate the spirit of no new unfunded mandates," the memo stated. Mr. Abbate was the prime sponsor of 13 of the 16 bills that were flagged by the Bloomberg administration.
Among his other bills is a measure that would permit public employees to go on strike "after the collective negotiation process has been exhausted," and one that would that would allow employees to strike without having their pay docked.
"I don't think he's ever introduced a piece of legislation opposed by a union," a fiscal analyst for the Manhattan Institute, E.J. McMahon, said.
In an interview, Mr. Abbate said his job is to protect an important segment of the state's working population that he says is under constant attack by business interests.
"If you left it up to business, they wouldn't be doing anything for anyone," he said. "I don't look at it like I'm doing something for the unions. I look at it as if I'm doing something for the working men and women in the state."
Public employee pensions and health benefits consume $3 billion of the more than $120 billion the state spends each year. "That would be a great percentage for a business," he said.
His critics say they can't see the bargain. Said Mr. McMahon: "He represents a minority of people, the people who belong to the public sector unions. They already have people representing them. It's called the unions."
Mr. Abbate has more than $400,000 in his campaign coffers, an amount that is on the high end for state assemblymen. Most of his money comes from organized labor groups (such as the International Longshoremen's Association, 1199 SEIU, the Civil Service Employees Union, and the New York City Central Labor Council) and a variety of uniformed officer associations.
Public employee labor unions, he says, approach him with bill proposals, and most of the time he introduces them.
The unions take care of the language and the preliminary fiscal analysis. As the New York Times reported last week, the actuary who prepared the Assembly's fiscal bill notes is a paid union consultant.
The public, Mr. Abbate says, has a misperception about legislation. To him, a bill is nothing set in stone, but a piece of paper with an idea. Mr. Abbate said it might have his name on it as a sponsor, but he doesn't necessarily think it's a smart idea.
"I don't feel it's my role to do a bill to do something for people," he said. When it comes to complicated pension and health benefit legislation, the unions are the experts, not him, Mr. Abbate said.
Most of the time, the bills stay put in his committee. Several dozen bills each year graduate to the Ways and Means Committee for a further review and are passed by the Assembly. The Legislature approves about a half-dozen significant public employee union bills a year. The last two governors, George Pataki and Eliot Spitzer, vetoed most of them. Governor Paterson has suggested he would as well.
The winnowing of the legislation demonstrates the checks and balances in the system, Mr. Abbate says. The unions may author the bills, but Assembly staffers perform their own financial analysis on those that make it out of committee.
The comptroller's office weighs in with its own review of the costs. The City Council must pass home rule resolutions on measures that have a substantial impact on city finances. Often, the mayor's office will lobby to block passage of the bills.
"I don't give the store away, and there are a lot of people looking over my shoulder," Mr. Abbate said.
Legislators, he said, are a bit like journalists. "You might start a story and do the research, and you find out that's not what you're looking for. Unless it's in front of you saying by law what it's going to do, then how would I know what it's going to do?" he said.
"It sounds like he considers himself a human file drawer," Mr. McMahon said.