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Cuomo, Legislature clash over pay raise, ethics for special session

In this Thursday, Dec. 8, 2016 file photo,

In this Thursday, Dec. 8, 2016 file photo, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during an economic development awards ceremony in Albany, N.Y. Credit: AP / Mike Groll

ALBANY — The legislature and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo are running out of time and temperament to enact the first legislative pay raise since 1999, which may also allow Cuomo to extract the legislature’s approval on some of his ethics and policy priorities.

All could be wrapped up in a special session this month, although rising animosities have snagged the private negotiations for three weeks. Talks are scheduled to continue during the weekend, which could prompt a special session as early as Monday or Tuesday.

The big swap of bills would include another set of ethics reforms following corruption scandals in the legislature; distribution of $2 billion in aid for the homeless before winter hits hardest; funding for a State Police task force to address a spike in hate crimes since Donald Trump was elected president; and greater accountability over billions of dollars spent in contracts and tax breaks, which has prompted a federal corruption probe involving state economic development programs.

“My point with the legislature is if they come back I want them to do a significant portion of the people’s’ business . . . there is a lot of work that needs to be done,” Cuomo said Thursday. “My focus is on the people’s agenda,” calling homelessness statewide “a terrible crisis.”

The negotiations — all done privately since late November — face a Dec. 31 deadline. That’s the last day legislative pay can be raised if lawmakers want to start collecting raises Jan. 1, the start of the new two-year legislative session. The effort would be necessary because a law prohibits lawmakers in one term from raising their own salaries during that same term.

At risk is the further fraying of the relationship between the legislature and Cuomo. In 2015, the governor and lawmakers had created a commission to study pay raises. This fall, the commission discussed raising legislators’ base pay by 47 percent, to $116,000, from the current $79,500 for the part-time job. Under its charge, the commission’s recommendation was supposed to take effect Jan. 1.

But Cuomo’s appointees derailed that action on Nov. 15 by saying all but a modest raise must accompany ethics reforms. That opened the door for Cuomo to add more proposals as a condition for a special session, which could also force legislators to cast the politically dicey votes on raises that they hoped to avoid.

“We remember Nov. 15,” said one legislator.

Assembly members “were livid with the governor over the pay raise situation,” said one veteran legislator. “That is just a real slap in the face.” Soon after, a Cuomo staffer called in to a gathering of Assembly members “and a member said in no uncertain words, ‘You’re dead to me. Don’t call me again.’ ”

The perception of trading votes for Cuomo’s proposals in order to get his support for legislative pay raises is a concern for lawmakers. They fear it could be seen as bribery or corruption by prosecutors, who have ensnared more than two dozen of their colleagues over the last decade in corruption investigations.

“We don’t want to make a deal like that because we think that’s prohibited,” said another senior legislator.

If there is to be a special session next week to avoid convening during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, Cuomo will likely have to again use “messages of necessity” to avoid the three days’ public review of bills required by the constitution. So far, no bills or detailed proposals have been made public.

“We would be foolish to appear to be voting on pay raises as part of a quid pro quo for other legislation that is not an emergency and that the public has not seen, all rolled together in a surprise at the end of the year,” said state Sen. Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan).

On Thursday, the rising animosity behind the scenes briefly came to the fore.

“The Senate has not been cooperative and that’s what’s slowing us up right now,” Cuomo told reporters.

“The biggest obstacle to doing the people’s business is him,” stated Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport) minutes later.

In response, Cuomo spokeswoman Dani Lever said, “Senator Flanagan’s idea of doing the people’s business is giving himself a raise.”

Two other moments underscored that rising tension: Legislative leaders didn’t attend Cuomo’s annual public ceremony on Dec. 9 to hand out millions of dollars in tax breaks statewide to companies and local governments; and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a fellow Democrat, publicly chastised Cuomo twice by reminding him that the legislature is “a co-equal branch of government and must be respected.”

The Assembly’s Democratic majority already shot down one of Cuomo’s most dramatic proposals: term limits. The Senate’s Republican majority also refused to consider Cuomo’s proposal to limit outside income of legislators to avoid conflicts of interest, which was at the heart of many recent corruption cases.

Those setbacks prompted Cuomo to try to add measures such as expanding ride-sharing services such as Uber to Long Island and upstate and including the Senate GOP’s priority of tax relief. One legislative staffer called it “moving the goal posts” and blamed Cuomo for the protracted talks.

Now legislators are looking for what they and Cuomo call a “modest” raise to about $99,000 or $99,500, hoping that keeping the base pay under six figures will soften the politically risky move. That would be a nearly 25 percent raise for legislators going into a legislative session that the governor, state comptroller and legislators say will be a tight fiscal year as tax revenues decline.

“In the end, it’s going to be about who is going to blink and what that blink is going to look like,” one legislator said. “Anything can happen, including nothing.”

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