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Could A December Session Bring A Pay Raise For NYS Lawmakers?

The New York State Capitol

Will there be a special session of the New York State Legislature this December? Governor Andrew Cuomo is offering lawmakers incentive to come back to meet- a possible pay raise, in exchange for ethics reforms.

Legislators have not received a salary increase since 1999. Any attempts to hike their pay has been caught up in political repercussions. First, there were years of late budgets, and more recently, corruption scandals that’s led to the two former legislative leaders facing prison time.

Finally, last year, a pay commission was set up by Governor Cuomo and the Legislature to decide the issue, independent of political considerations.  But even that group is now embroiled in politics. It failed, during a sometimes acrimonious meeting on November 15, to decide whether Senators and Assemblymembers should receive a salary increase. The proposal would also apply to the governor and his top commissioners.

Governor Cuomo’s appointees, who dominate the commission, said, if the legislature did not make ethics changes that Cuomo is seeking, there would be no pay raise. Fran Reiter, a former top aide to Cuomo, said the governor’s appointees would not be voting.

“This will give the Assembly and Senate the opportunity to meet before year’s end and pass the reforms demanded by their constituents,” Reiter said.

That led the Assembly’s appointee Roman Hedges to accuse the governor of acting like a controlling monarch. He says the concept of a legislature was originally constructed to “resist the King”.

“And that’s what I just think I heard, ‘do it my way or don’t do it all’,” Hedges, a former top Assembly official, said.  

Reiter answered that she was “insulted” by the implication.

“I take enormous exception to the notion,” said Reiter. “That we are somehow upsetting the balance of power by doing the governor’s work for him, and thereby creating a king.”

Cuomo’s appointees then offered a new interpretation of the laws governing their commission. Even though the statute says the final report was due by November 15, and the commission would then be dissolved, they say they believe the commission can actually keep meeting until the end of the year. That would give legislators a chance to come back into special session, and agree to Cuomo’s proposals.  In a statement issued later, the governor’s appointees did not rule out agreeing to a “modest” salary increase before December 31 . The governor, among other things, is seeking a strict cap on legislators’ outside income. Cuomo says the public is on his side.

“It’s almost 99 to 1 against a pay raise for the Legislature,” Cuomo said. “If it is to be considered, people will say ‘they have to reform the Legislature and clean up their act’”.

Legislative leaders, Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and  Republican Senate Leader John Flanagan, issued a rare joint statement calling the pay commission’s lack of action “completely unacceptable”.

Cuomo says he hopes there will be a special session in early December, but lawmakers have not yet agreed to that.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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