New York Legislature pay raises provide political cover

New York Legislature pay raises provide political cover

Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers, became the first woman to hold the title of state Senate majority on Monday, Nov. 26, 2018.
Jon Campbell, jcampbell1@gannett.com

The New York State Capitol in Albany on May 31, 2017.(Photo: Jon Campbell, Albany Bureau)

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Sure, New York state legislators have to give up some perks to finally get their first pay raise in 20 years. But, thanks to an appointed committee making all the tough decisions, legislators don’t have to take the politically unpalatable step of hiking their own pay. The state Legislature could ax the plan before the end of the year, but that doesn’t seem likely.

The New York State Compensation Committee, comprising four former and current comptrollers, voted on Friday to phase in raises for legislators, whose base pay has been $79,500 since 1999.

It’s being labeled a 63 percent raise, but that’s a bit of an exaggeration for most lawmakers, who fatten up their pay with stipends, or “lulus” in Albany speak, for myriad committee and leadership roles.

Here’s the new pay scheme: As of Jan. 1, 2019, legislative salaries will increase to $110,000; as of Jan. 1, 2020, pay will go to $120,000; on Jan. 1, 2021, pay will increase to $130,000.

But to get the highest state legislative pay in the nation, lawmakers have to adhere to the committee’s other recommendations:

New rules about outside income would kick in Jan. 1, 2020, so legislators have time to “disengage,” according to committee leader H. Carl McCall, former state comptroller and current chair of the SUNY Board of Trustees.

In other words, the committee did to legislators some of the things the public has been demanding legislators do to themselves for years.

Axing lulus isn’t just about evening out pay. Those stipends have long been a technique for party leaders to reward their faithful — think about the fat stipends dished out to some members of the erstwhile Independent Democratic Conference by the GOP leadership that the breakaway Dems bolstered.

Now, a committee leadership position would be its own reward. At least constituents can believe that those posts will be filled by legislators who are motivated to do the work, not just stuff their pockets.

As Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause NY told the panel at a Nov. 30 public comment session: “There should be one salary (with) only escalators for really responsible leaders.” While her good-government group joined with others in supporting Congress-style limits on outside income, Lerner added that she believed when it comes to outside income for lawmakers, “there shouldn’t be any.”

McCall framed the changes as a great opportunity. “(The) Legislature has not always lived up to its full opportunities to convince the public … of its honest work.” He also opined that outside income “can give the appearance of conflict.” You think?

Other ethics reforms, aimed at Albany’s pay-to-play culture, were left out of the legislative pay deal. Legal counsel told the committee that those measures were “beyond our purview,” as McCall framed it.

The panel, though, pledged to provide the Legislature with further recommendations, gleaned from public comments, to tackle campaign finance reform, including:

On Thursday, hours before the pay committee voted, incoming Majority Leader Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers, pledged support for ethics reform, which went nowhere in the Republican-controlled state Senate.

Stewart-Cousins also backed a curb on outside income as part of a pay increase formula.

The raise issue had long been lorded over legislators’ heads as torque on ethics reform.

Now the issue has been put to bed — conveniently, without lawmakers having to stick their necks out. Let’s see how quickly other reforms move through the legislative process.

Nancy Cutler is an Engagement Editor. Twitter: @nancyrockland

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