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Pay raise unlikely for state lawmakers

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WBFO File Photo
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It’s looking less likely that state lawmakers will be getting a long-awaited pay raise next year. A commission designed to take politics out of the issue is now coming under political pressure to not grant the salary increase.

State senators and assembly members, as well as governors, have not received a pay increase since 1999. A streak of record late budgets in the early 2000s and a series of recent corruption scandals have made it politically difficult for lawmakers to vote for a pay raise. So, in 2015, they agreed with Gov. Andrew Cuomo to set up a commission to study pay increases in order to remove the issue from day-to-day politics.

But Cuomo has been needling legislators about the issue since the summer, saying lawmakers’ performance “hasn’t been great,” pointing out that 29 legislators have been implicated in crimes — including both former legislative leaders, who are facing stiff prison sentences for corruption.

Cuomo said lawmakers need to appear before the commission publicly and make the case why they need more pay.

“You have to say what you’re doing or what you would do to justify that raise,” Cuomo said.

The governor said those who have testified so far are against an increase.

“A number of legislators have been saying publicly there shouldn’t be a pay raise,” Cuomo said. “And a number have said, ‘If there is a pay raise, we’re not going to accept it.’ ”

The pay commission does not require any public testimony from lawmakers to make a decision. They had been considering a proposal to raise the base pay from $79,500 a year to about $113,000 a year or higher.

Roman Hedges, an Assembly appointee to the commission, said at a Sept. 22nd meeting that the amount is based on the rate of inflation over the past 17 years.

“To me, that’s a modest increase,” Hedges said. “I understand that in the aggregate, that adds up to a big number, because it’s been a long time.”

But some commissioners appointed by Cuomo are expressing doubts.

Fran Reiter, one of three Cuomo appointees, echoed the governor’s request that lawmakers make a public plea. She said all the input that the commission has received has been against the pay raise.

“Based on all we’ve heard, it’s my opinion that there is no possible justification for this commission to recommend any legislative pay raise whatsoever,” Reiter said.

The governor controls three of the seven appointments, and they have the power to stop a salary increase.

Hedges countered that the whole point of the commission is to make the decision without lawmakers having to express their opinions.

“It was to depoliticize,” said Hedges, who accused the lawmakers who testified against the increases of “grandstanding.”

Reiter answered that there’s no realistic way that politics can be absent from any decision the commission makes.

“It’s too much of a hot-button issue,” she said.

Cuomo’s aides floated the idea to lawmakers that perhaps they might stand a better chance of convincing the commission to OK a pay hike if they agreed to greater ethics reform.

Trades for pay are not unprecedented. In 1999, then-Gov. George Pataki got charter schools approved in exchange for his agreement to raise lawmakers’ pay.

That drew an angry response from Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who’s said publicly that legislators deserve a raise. Heastie, in a statement, accused “some” of trying to “politicize this process by suggesting legislators testify or trade legislation.”

Cuomo’s aides say they didn’t suggest a direct trade, and the governor wouldn’t be twisting any of his appointees’ arms to change their minds; it would be up to lawmakers to make the argument themselves.

The commission also is considering a pay raise for Cuomo and his agency commissioners. The governor would get an increase to $263,000 a year from the current $179,000, and agency commissioners could receive up to $200,000. Cuomo already has said publicly that his commissioners need to earn more. He said he’s had trouble attracting top-quality candidates.

“So I’ll go first, I’m going to argue to the commission that we need to pay commissioners more to get top-flight people,” Cuomo said on Aug. 8.

Cuomo’s budget director wrote a letter to the pay commission earlier this month, outlining the governor’s concerns about the relatively low pay for his commissioners.

The pay commission will hold one more meeting in October. They are due to make a final decision on Nov. 15, one week after Election Day.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.