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Blair Horner: Gaming Albany's System Of Legislative Pay

A new controversy erupted at the state Capitol last week—a controversy over the way the Senate Republicans pay members of their governing coalition.

All legislators, both in the Senate and Assembly, receive a base pay of $79,500 and that hasn’t been raised in almost 20 years.  In addition to their base pay, lawmakers are eligible for additional pay to cover extra legislative work, usually as committee chairs or for serving in leadership positions within their respective conferences.  These stipends range from a low of $9,000 to a high of $41,500.

Lawmakers technically hold part-time positions and are allowed to seek employment outside the Legislature.  There are no significant limits on that outside income.  However, if a legislator leads a conference, or heads up a committee, the stipend is a way to offset any potential loss in outside income for the legislator spending more time doing legislative work, possibly at the expense of outside income.

That’s the theory, whether it makes sense is another matter.  There have been far too many instances of lawmakers—including those receiving significant stipend money—getting investigated for corruption as the result of using their public office for private gain.  Nevertheless, that’s the way the system works.

Under the state’s stipend system, the bonuses are written into law and allocated to a specific position.  For example, by statute a stipend is issued to the Senator who is the chair of the Senate Health Committee to compensate for the additional work of running that committee.

Yet last week there were stunning revelations that the Senate Republican majority was gaming that system and instead of issuing stipends to those positions identified in law, they were instead giving them to Senators who did not hold those positions or perform the roles set out in law.

As reported in The New York Times, instead of issuing stipends to the Senate chairs of the Codes, Energy and Health committees, the Senate instead issued them to newly-created positions, called “Vice Chairs.”  There is no mention of these positions in the law authorizing these payments.  It is unclear who made this decision, but it would be shocking if it hadn’t been decided by the Senate Majority Leader himself.  After all, the chairs of those committees surely noticed the missing stipends.

Probably not coincidentally, this group of “Vice Chairs” are all members of the Independent Democratic Conference, a group of eight Senate Democrats who have aligned with the Senate Republicans to create the majority bloc that runs that house.  Senate staffers reportedly sent false information to the state Comptroller’s office to steer the stipends to these “Vice Chairs,” inaccurately describing the recipients as committee chairs.

Later in the week, the Times reported that four Senate Republicans were also receiving stipends for legislative positions that they did not hold.

The Senate leadership has been reluctant to publicly discuss this arrangement and simply argues that their decisions are legal.  A Senate Republican lawyer’s memo provided to the press makes the legal argument that any legislator connected to the committee in some way is entitled to the extra stipend money—regardless of title or whether they did any additional work. 

It’s not surprising that the Senate would not be interested in discussing this situation.  Earlier in the year when one Senate Democrat moved from the mainline Conference to the Independent Democratic Conference, questions were raised about the possibility that he would receive a stipend.  It was reported in Albany’s Times Union newspaper that he told a reporter earlier in the year that he could not get the stipend since he was not a committee chair. 

But then he did get one.

It’s pretty clear that instead of using these stipends to offset the possibility of outside income loss, these stipends are used to help cement the allegiance of other Senators.  These are being used as political levers to maintain legislative power.

Sometimes Albany’s political elite forgets whose money it is that they are spending.  Taxpayer dollars should be used fairly and disclosed openly and the letter of the law followed to a tee.  Those dollars shouldn’t be used as political favors to reward legislative allies.

In this case, sending stipends to political allies is wrong and a practice that should be ended.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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