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Albany considers swapping ethics measures for pay raises

New York State has the second worst tax

New York State has the second worst tax climate for businesses in the country -- for the second year in a row, a nonpartisan think tank said Tuesday. Pictured is a photo of the Capitol Building in Albany. Photo Credit: AP / Arno Burgi

ALBANY — Transformative measures such as term limits and ethics reforms for a state government battered by corruption scandals are under negotiation for a possible special session of the legislature as early as next week, officials from all sides said.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has used the lure of the first pay raises for legislators in 17 years to try to get the State Legislature to enact term limits, place limits on lawmakers’ outside income, and lower campaign contribution limits, among other measures.

The governor called for only a “modest” pay increase unless the legislature adopts his agenda. It includes funding for a hate crimes task force and allocating $2 billion in housing funds for the homeless before winter hits hardest.

A source close to the negotiations said the legislators have sought raises of $30,000 to $40,000 and “are resistant” to accepting term limits or restrictions on their outside income.

A state pay commission created by the legislature and Cuomo was supposed to avoid this horse trading over raising lawmakers’ base pay. But legislators blame Cuomo’s appointees to the commission for derailing an effort that was supposed to have enacted raises earlier last month.

Legislators’ base pay has been unchanged from $79,500 since 1999, although leadership stipends and per-diem expense payments raise most lawmakers’ income to more than $100,000 for what are technically part-time jobs. In 1999, then-Gov. George Pataki used the leverage of a pay raise to extract his legacy win of creating charter schools in exchange for a raise of nearly 40 percent for lawmakers.

Last week, legislators most often cited the pay commission’s discussion of a proposed 47 percent raise to $116,900 a year, or a $37,400 increase. Many balked at Cuomo’s talk of a “modest” raise and defended the 47 percent increase because it covers 17 years with zero increases.

The Senate’s Republican majority has traditionally opposed Cuomo’s proposal to limit outside income of legislators, although fewer GOP senators today hold lucrative jobs such as lawyers.

Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport) and Sen. Jeff Klein (D-Bronx), who heads the influential Independent Democratic Conference that works with the GOP, chose to end their legal practices when they became leaders.

Several of Albany’s corruption cases have involved the conflicts of interest that outside jobs can create for lawmakers.

The Assembly’s Democratic majority has opposed term limits, although many recently elected members of each chamber supported them during their campaigns. Term limits are also strongly supported in public opinion polls following the convictions of former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) and former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan), each of whom served in powerful positions for decades.

The Senate Republicans under their rules already limit leadership tenure and have supported term limits for the rank and file. Assembly Democrats have supported restrictions on outside income, while Senate Republicans have not.

Cuomo wants a constitutional amendment to create four-year legislative terms, rather than the current two-year cycles, and to hold members elected after an agreement is struck to a maximum of eight years.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) has denied that term cycles were being discussed. “There is a lot of fighting going on,” said one legislative official. “It is all up in the air.”

On Wednesday, Heastie shot back at the governor: “We are simply not going to trade a pay raise for any piece of legislation . . . The Governor is entitled to his wish list about how he wants to see the world, but the Legislature is a co-equal branch of government and must be respected.”

Another legislative official said tension in the Assembly and Senate has raised a possibility that the chambers could return to Albany, vote directly on a pay raise, then dare Cuomo to veto it at the threat of an override.

“There are a lot of X-factors,” said a third legislative official of the power politics playing out behind closed doors and by telephone. “It is a brave new world.”

“It could be nothing,” said a fourth legislative official. “But we are continuing discussions.”


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