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NY Pay Commission Issues Final Report

The New York State capitol in Albany
Dave Lucas

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo says he backs a pay commission’s recommendation that he and the legislature receive a more than 60 percent pay increase over the next three years. The move would make the Democrat the highest paid governor in the nation.

Under the recommendations of the pay commission, released Monday evening, the pay of state Senators and Assemblymembers would increase from the current $79,500 base salary to $110,000 on January 1, 2019 and rise to $130,000 a year by January 2021.

Governor Cuomo, speaking on WNYC’s the Brian Lehrer show, says lawmakers deserve their first pay raise in 20 years.

“Look, if we want to get talented people into the legislature we have to pay them a salary that allows them to live and not be a martyr,” Cuomo said.

The commission also recommends that the governor’s pay be increased from $179,500 a year to $250,000 by 2021. That would be the highest governor’s salary in the nation. The governor says he isn’t concerned about the amount of his own salary, saying his job is “not about the money." But he says he does want to be able to better compensate state agency commissioners. He says the stagnant salaries have made it difficult for him to attract top talent to the posts. 

“I have to hire commissioners who are in charge of multibillion dollar agencies,” said Cuomo. “I’ll never compete with the private sector, but I have to offer a professional, a decent salary. Because we need quality people.”  

State agency commissioners and public authority heads would be eligible for salaries of up to $220,000 a year, by January 1, 2021.  

The pay commission also recommends that outside income for legislators be strictly limited, to 15 percent of their total government salaries, similar to current rules in Congress. Two former leaders of the legislature face prison time for illegal actions involving outside pay.  

And the commission says the number of stipends paid to members in leadership posts and on committees should be reduced, from more than 150 to just 15; nine in the Assembly and six in the Senate.

The commission’s report also warns that if the state budget is not approved in both houses of the legislature by the April 1 deadline each year, the raises will be rescinded. Lawmakers entitled to stipends will also receive just partial payment, to be paid in full after the budget is passed on time.  

The commission believes it has the power to set the conditions, based on language in the law establishing the pay panel.  It states that any salary increases are will “be conditioned upon performance” of the executive and legislative branches, and also upon “timely” passage of the budget.

Blair Horner, with the government reform organization the New York Public Interest Research Group, says while the wording is somewhat ambiguous, lawmakers voted in favor of the measure during the budget process earlier this year.

“The lawmakers voted for it, and I’m sure this is one section of the budget that they all read,” said Horner. “So what did they think was going to happen when they tied it to performance? That they were going to go to the gym more?" 

Horner says he thinks the commission has the power to go even further, and recommend more reforms that include the executive branch, which has had its share of scandals. Several former associates of Governor Cuomo have been sentenced to prison for participating in bribery and pay-to-play schemes.

The incoming Senate Majority Leader, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, says Democrats who will control the chamber have the votes to enact at least one of the reforms, to adopt limits on outside income.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie in testimony before the commission, said he did not want to link any legislation, even reform legislation, with the pay raise, and believes any salary hike should stand on its own.

“To agree to a specific piece of legislation in exchange for compensation is not something I am even comfortable doing,” said Heastie, who told the commissioners that he is willing to “listen” to ideas for reforms.

Heastie has not yet said what the Assembly will do, but in a statement, he said he would be guided by the principles of “the sanctity of independence and respect for the legislative branch," which he says are “embedded in the New York state Constitution.”  

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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