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Pay commission issues final report, raises would make Cuomo highest-paid governor

WBFO file photo

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said 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, which would make Cuomo the highest-paid governor in the nation.

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

Cuomo, speaking on WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show,” said lawmakers deserve their first pay raise in 20 years.

“Look, if we want to get talented people in 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. Cuomo said he isn’t concerned about the amount of his own salary, saying his job is “not about the money.”

But Cuomo said he does want to be able to better compensate state agency commissioners. He said 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 Jan. 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 said the number of stipends paid to lawmakers 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state budget is not approved in both houses of the legislature by the April 1 deadline each year, the raises would be rescinded. Lawmakers entitled to stipends also would 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 will “be conditioned upon performance” of the executive and legislative branches and upon “timely” passage of the budget.

Blair Horner with the New York Public Interest Research Group, a government reform organization, said 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,” Horner said. “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 said 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 Cuomo have been sentenced to prison for participating in bribery and pay-to-play schemes.

The incoming Senate majority leader, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, said Democrats who will control the chamber have the votes to enact 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 he believes any salary increase 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 said are “embedded in the New York State Constitution.”

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.