ALBANY — The Senate’s Republican majority pays lucrative stipends for chairing committees to three members of the Independent Democratic Conference, which helps the GOP maintain its slim control of the chamber, even though the Democrats aren’t chairmen.
The mainline Democrats say it could be a crime, but the state comptroller’s office, which pays out the stipends, says the law provides the majority Republicans latitude in bestowing the extra paychecks for added duties.
“The Senate determines who gets paid what stipend consistent with state law and the practices of the house,” Jennifer Freeman, spokeswoman for Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, said yesterday. “When our office receives a payroll request that has been certified by the Senate, or any state entity, we make the payment. At this time, we have no basis to take back this money.”
Democrats in the Senate’s minority conference, however, say the Republicans have submitted false reports to the comptroller.
“The public should always care that the law is being followed, especially as it relates to the use of taxpayer money,” said Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria). “State government has a horrible reputation for a reason and it’s episodes like this that make it worse.”
“The more we learn about this outrageous scandal, the more disturbing,” said Democratic spokesman Mike Murphy, citing articles on the issue in The New York Times and Daily News. “The diversion of legislative stipends to those not entitled to them is illegal, as are the false filings provided to the comptroller.”
The payments bolster the $79,500-a-year base pay of the three IDC members. The three IDC members receiving chairmen stipends without being chairs of those committees are Sen. Jose Peralta (D-Jackson Heights), Sen. Diane Savino (D-Staten Island) and Sen. David Valesky (D-Oneida).
The Senate’s GOP majority said the practice is legal and longstanding when a committee’s actual chairman, a post that carries a $12,500 stipend, accepts a larger stipend for other duties, such as senior assistant majority leader of the Senate, which pays $27,500. The stipends are part of the legislature’s budget.
“The law is on our side and so is the case law,” said Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport) yesterday. He said stipends were paid to legislators who do extra work and have a certain expertise or interest in the field covered by the committee.
“We have a very good working relationship with the IDC,” Flanagan said.
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.”
The law and constitution allow legislators to collect just one stipend and do not restrict use of the unused stipend.
“Every member of the IDC has always conducted themselves with the utmost integrity and follows the letter of the law, and to insinuate anything else is false,” said Candice Giove, spokeswoman for the IDC.
A good-government advocate said taxpayers should be concerned about the practice.
“The intent of the law is clear,” said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group. “Stipends are supposed to go to specific positions. It turns out in many instances that is not the case, so the public deserves a straight accounting . . . and that’s not happening here.”
The Assembly has no compensation for the second-highest-ranking majority member of committees.