A proposal to raise the salaries of New York State lawmakers for the first time since 1999 died Tuesday when appointees of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo refused to support it.
Cuomo appointees announced at the outset of the final meeting of the Commission on Legislative, Judicial and Executive Compensation that they wouldn’t agree to a pay hike unless state legislators agreed to limit their outside incomes. That doomed the pay-hike proposal immediately because the law creating the commission required at least one appointee of each branch of government (executive, legislative, judicial) to support any increase.
Panel members who supported a legislative raise — appointees of the Assembly and State Senate — said the issues shouldn’t be tied together, which would give the governor leverage over the upcoming legislative session. (They also supported raises across the board in state government, including for the governor and state-agency commissioners and noted that Cuomo appointees omitted the executive branch from any additional ethics requirements.) They said the pay freeze soon would mean that only the independently wealthy could run for office. One even accused Cuomo and his appointees of acting like a “king.”
But the unified front by gubernatorial appointees made it clear from the opening minutes of the meeting that the proposal wouldn’t win approval. In the end, just two of six panel members present voted to approve a proposal that would have hiked lawmakers’ pay 2.2 percent annualized over the last 17 years.
For Senate and Assembly members, this would have meant a raise from the current $79,500 base salary to approximately $117,000. (An array of leadership stipends and committee posts increase that base by as much as $41,500 for the leader of the Senate and Assembly, in addition to allowances of about $172 per day for lodging and meals for most lawmakers.)
In an extraordinary response, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport) and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) issued a joint statement, calling the Cuomo appointees action “unacceptable” and saying they overstepped their authority in trying to bargain for legislation.
“It is unfortunate that the governor’s appointees . . . once again felt the need to demand legislative action in exchange for an increase in compensation,” the two house leaders said in the statement. “This is completely unacceptable and far exceeds the mandate of the commission, which was to evaluate the need for an increase in compensation based primarily on economic factors.”
Cuomo, later at an afternoon event in Rochester, defended his appointees’ actions.
“You ask the people of this state do you think the New York State Legislature should get a raise . . . people overwhelmingly say no,” Cuomo said. “$80,000 for a part-time job? That’s a lot of money.”
The governor also suggested the commission could reconvene by Dec. 31 to consider another recommendation, but panelists said they lacked the authorization to meet beyond Tuesday. Also later, Robert Megna, a Cuomo appointee to the panel and former Cuomo budget director, said the governor’s allies would be willing to consider a small pay hike if the job of state legislator remains considered part-time.
The stalemate sets up a potentially huge flashpoint for Cuomo and legislators in the 2017 legislative session.
Billed as an independent commission to study the pay issue, the panel was anything but, according to government watchdog groups after the vote. Panelists merely echoed the talking points made by the people who appointed them, watchdogs said.
“It was pretty clear from the beginning these were surrogates for the Legislature and the governor,” said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group. “Independent commissions aren’t really the hallmark of Albany.”
Horner and other noted the last time lawmakers’ pay was increased, it was part of a deal to create charter schools in New York. He said the issue “should not be held hostage” to other matters, even though he supports laws on state contracting and outside incomes. But now, Horner said, it’s likely that if a pay-raise proposal surfaces again, “it gets lumped into one large-scale deal.”
Cuomo and legislative leaders agreed to create the commission as a way to take the pay-raise issue off their hands. Previously, governors and legislators approved their own pay raises. The commission was set to go out of existence after Tuesday’s vote.
The meeting got heated — especially after Cuomo appointee Fran Reiter said her allies wouldn’t back the pay proposal on the table.
“I think it’s awful that the governor thinks he is king,” said Roman Hedges, a retired Assembly official and the appointee of Heastie. “And I think it’s awful that the governor’s representatives here think he should be king.”
Reiter said had no communication with Cuomo.
“I take enormous exception . . . that we are somehow upsetting the balance of power by doing the governor’s work for him and thereby creating a king. It’s insulting,” said Reiter, a former executive deputy in the Cuomo administration.
Reiter said legislators’ outside incomes were “at the root of every scandal” in state government. She omitted an ongoing bid-rigging scandal involving Cuomo’s former top aide, watchdogs noted.