ALBANY -- If your employer is taking payroll deductions for parking, tools, uniforms or other items, it may be illegal.
That's been the case since a 2006 state Court of Appeals decision found that such deductions, even voluntary ones, are forbidden among private-sector employers.
The trouble is, some employers may not even know they should have stopped deducting these fees five years ago.
With that in mind, state lawmakers this past session tried to bring back the voluntary deductions. A bill backed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to allow the deductions once again was working its way through the Assembly but was never voted on in the Senate.
And before long, Assembly members took the unusual step of "recalling" the approved measure and voiding it.
According to insiders, the measure hit a roadblock when business interests pushed for a broadening of the kind of expenses that could be deducted from an employee's paycheck to include contributions to state political action committees or PACs.
The story of how a seemingly simple piece of legislation got off track illustrates how a bill that is intended to achieve one purpose can be detoured or even hijacked to do something else. And it's a reminder of how the endless push for campaign funding casts a shadow over even the most mundane measures in the state Capitol.
"We passed the original bill," said Assemblyman Joe Morelle, D-Rochester, who sponsored the measure in his chamber. He later backed a similar program bill that Cuomo put forward when learning that the governor also supported the idea.
Senate sponsor Catharine Young, R-Olean, was shepherding the measure through her chamber and made it as far as the Rules Committee, generally a last stop before a floor vote. But there was no vote.
Most observers now agree that the PAC issue put the brakes on the measure.
All the parties predict the bill will come up again during the next legislative session. And most agree that allowing deductions for expenses like parking or uniforms makes sense since it is easier than having to bill employees separately.
Morelle, for example, has heard from hospital managers and employees alike who want the law to pass so they can use their ID swipe cards in the cafeteria and have the meals deducted from their paychecks.
But opinions diverge on whether the measure should be broadened to include deductions for PACs.
"That's not consistent with the spirit of what we were trying to do," Morelle said.
Young, however, argued that allow political deductions make sense since employees already can agree to deductions for federal PACs.
And Young said she heard from those in the business community that wanted to make sure the potential list of deductions would go beyond items like parking fees or uniforms.
Companies could buy bulk orders of computers or other goods and pass them on to employees who want the discounts, or they may purchase equipment for auto mechanics, who customarily own their own tools.
"The business community was concerned because they felt the governor's bill was way too narrow (in its exemptions)," she said.
That federal PACs can collect money via payroll deductions is one of the main arguments put forth by the state Business Council as well.
"We see no reason why it shouldn't be allowed under similar rules at the state level," said Ken Pokalsky, the Business Council's senior director of government affairs.
He also noted that union dues are among the deductions currently allowed in the state.
Others, though, oppose making it easier for PACs to gather money. "It opens up a can of worms," said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, a group that pushes for campaign finance reform.
While not opposed to the concept of PACs, Lerner fears employees could come under pressure by their bosses to give to certain committees, regardless of whether they agree with those groups or nor.
Either way, employers that want to bring back deductions for items such as parking fees have been caught in the middle of what will likely become a growing debate.
Cornell University charges employees for parking, as do numerous schools or hospitals where there is limited space for cars. Without the measure, the school faces the prospect of setting up a whole new billing system, noted Charles Kruzansky, Cornell's director of government affairs.
That won't be easy. "We've got thousands of employees," he said.
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