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Is pay raise for state legislators still possible?

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Will there be a special session of the legislature this December? Gov. Andrew Cuomo is offering lawmakers an incentive to come back to meet — a possible pay raise, in exchange for ethics reforms.

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

Last year, Cuomo and the legislature set up a pay commission 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 Nov. 15, to decide whether legislators should receive a salary increase. The proposal also would apply to the governor and his top commissioners.

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 said 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 at all,’” said Hedges, a former top Assembly official.

Reiter said 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 offered a new interpretation of the laws governing their commission. Even though the statute said the final report was due by Nov. 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 Dec. 31. The governor, among other things, is seeking a strict cap on legislators’ outside income.

Cuomo said 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.’ ”

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 said 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 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.