ALBANY — The leader of the Senate’s Independent Democratic Conference on Tuesday defended a practice in which three of its members received committee chairmanship stipends from the Republican majority, even though the Democrats aren’t committee chairmen.
“I stand by the hard work of our members and will continue to accept a stipend for the hard work they do in connection with their committees,” said Sen. Jeff Klein (D-Bronx), who leads the IDC which has a power-sharing agreement with the Republican majority.
When reporters on Tuesday relayed good-government advocates’ questions about the practice, Klein said: “That’s nonsense because you’re not a lawyer.” He bristled at what he called claims that the IDC was “bought off” by Republicans.
At issue is the decision by Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport) to provide lucrative stipends of about $12,500 to chairmen of committees even though the three IDC senators don’t chair their committees.
The actual Republican chairman have taken larger stipends — as much as $27,500 — for other leadership positions in running the majority conference. Under law, one legislator can’t collect two stipends and there is no increased cost to the Senate’s budget for bestowing unused chairmanship stipends on senators who aren’t chairmen.
The leader of the mainline Democrats, who accuse the IDC of protecting the Republicans’ slim majority, called for an investigation Tuesday.
“It seems every day troubling new questions arise and new details are learned about the apparent abuse of the Senate stipend system,” said Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) said. “The time has come for someone in authority to properly look into these obvious violations of state law as outlined in our legal memo.”
But the state comptroller’s office finds the law affords the GOP majority some latitude. Comptroller spokeswoman Jennifer Freeman said Monday that the Senate, under law, decides who gets a stipend and, “At this time, we have no basis to take back this money.”
The state constitution lists chairmanships with corresponding stipends, but also appears to allow stipends to be paid to legislators “directly connected” with a chairmanship. The constitution says a legislator may “also be paid and receive, in addition, any allowance which may be fixed by law for the particular and additional services appertaining to or entailed by such office or special capacity.”
Flanagan on Monday said the law and court cases support his position.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who works closely with the Senate Republican majority and the IDC, hasn’t commented on the issue.