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Bill to strip pensions from corrupt pols gains late steam

Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, right, talks with

Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, right, talks with Majority Leader Joseph Morelle, D-Rochester, at the start of the 2015 legislative session in the Assembly Chamber at the state Capitol in Albany on Jan. 7, 2015. Photo Credit: AP / Mike Groll

ALBANY — A bill gaining momentum in Albany would deny state pensions to any more public officials convicted of corruption under a practice that now pays out nearly $800,000 a year to politicians convicted of crimes.

“I would say it’s the top priority,” said Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Morelle (D-Rochester) on Monday. Morelle said in an interview that Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) is leading discussions to reach agreement on a bill before the legislative session ends June 16.

The measure, which a spokesman said would be applied only to corrupt elected officials and policymakers, would set in motion the process to amend the state constitution, which now guarantees public pensions to all public-sector workers. Voters statewide could rule on a proposed amendment as soon as 2017.

The Senate’s Republican majority also is anticipating a deal and remains committed to the 2015 agreement with Cuomo on the broader bill the Assembly Democrats eventually rejected. That bill applied to all public workers, which even supporters in the Senate agreed wasn’t the intent of the measure. Now, closed-door negotiations are underway to arrive at a consensus.

“The Senate has already passed a pension forfeiture measure that was the result of a three-way agreement,” said Senate Republican spokesman Scott Reif. “We lived up to our word and continue to urge the Assembly to join us as soon as possible.”

Two veteran Assembly members and an official from the governor’s office said they expect a deal will be struck on the popular ethics measure this legislative election year after an unprecedented string of corruption convictions within the last 12 months.

The Assembly effort is significant because the chamber dropped out of a three-way 2015 agreement with the Senate and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, because it and public union leaders found the proposal to apply to all public workers too broad.

The current bill would change a constitutional protection for public workers that their pension “shall not be diminished or impaired.” The proposal would apply to any public official in a public pension system “convicted of a crime related to public service,” according to the bill.

“From my personal point of view, it’s overdue for the Legislature to conclude their negotiations and take positive action on that,” said state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, who is the sole trustee of the state pension system. “I think the press has done a good job of pointing out how many folks in elected positions who have been convicted are collecting pensions and how much.”

A Siena Research Institute poll in May found 77 percent of voters wanted all state employees, including legislators, to be stripped of their public pensions when convicted of crimes related to their public jobs.

The late-session push contrasts with little interest in the measure in January, when the Assembly’s Republican majority made it the top priority.

“Scandals, arrests, and two convictions of legislative leaders hasn’t resulted in any action,” said Assembly Republican leader Brian Kolb (R-Canandaigua). “Is it going to happen? It should, but I’ll believe it when I see it.”

A 2011 law ended pensions for any lawmakers first elected to the State Legislature after that time, but didn’t apply to the vast majority of veteran legislators who have long enjoyed a re-election rate of better than 90 percent. Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre), with an annual pension of $95,831, and former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan), with a pension of at least $79,224, both were convicted last fall on federal corruption charges.

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