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As state lawmakers seek pay raise, perks continue to pad their salaries

A statue stands in front of the New

A statue stands in front of the New York State Capitol building in Albany, New York, on Wednesday, March 19, 2014. Photo Credit: Bloomberg / Ron Antonelli

ALBANY - New York's state legislators haven't had a pay raise since 1999, when "The Matrix" and Whitney Houston were topping the charts.

The $79,500 wage enacted then would have to be $113,000 today just to have the same buying power, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And now, a month after elections and two years before the next one, lawmakers are considering a special session to raise their salaries, despite worsening public regard for them amid corruption probes that have ensnared 30 state officials over the past 10 years.

But there's more to compensation for part-time lawmakers than just a salary.

A system of extra pay for almost every one of the 213 senators and Assembly members for leadership posts brings the average compensation for a lawmaker with a stipend to more than $94,000. Each also gets $172 per day for working in Albany or being away from home on state business overnight. Each year, that includes about 65 legislative session days, worth about $11,180 to a typical lawmaker.

Add to that top-flight health coverage and a pension with lifetime health care in retirement. Elected officials also can use campaign funds to pay for some expenses, such as cars, hotels, trips and restaurants.

By comparison, the median income for a New York household of four is $51,554, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That puts New Yorkers' median household income at 37th among states, while a New York legislator's part-time salary is the third-highest among states, according to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

"They may think they need a raise," said the Rev. Frances W. Rosenau, an advocate for the poor, of the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Albany. "Maybe it's hard to wear a suit all day and listen to yourself talk."

Meanwhile, she said, the working poor, often on their feet all day in dangerous jobs, continue to struggle in an economic recovery that has so far passed them by.

 

Pols: Raises needed

Pay raises for lawmakers also traditionally include raises for top executive branch officials as part of the deal between the State Legislature and the governor. Those salaries are: governor ($179,000), lieutenant governor ($151,500), attorney general ($151,500) and comptroller ($127,000). Top Cuomo administration aides could also see an increase, such as secretary to the governor Lawrence Schwartz, who makes more than $187,000.

Public discussion of a pay raise in a special session this year began after the November elections. Cuomo and legislative leaders are considering a session that could tie a pay raise to other unrelated priorities of each leader. A vote this month would get around the law that prohibits lawmakers from raising their own pay because the current legislative term ends Dec. 31 and the pay raise would take effect next year.

"There are a number of talented people who I think are underpaid," said Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan). He said if the long-overdue pay raise isn't done soon, Albany will attract lawmakers of lesser quality.

"I have said I'm in favor of a pay raise on numerous occasions," Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) said. He notes the job isn't easy: For half the year lawmakers must spend two, three or more days a week away from their families, often staying in motels and hotels.

"It is an issue we're going to have to deal with sooner or later, because we also want to get talented people to come into state service," Cuomo said.

 

The 'per diem' system

But increasing salaries is dicey with the public. That's why it's usually taken up in a little-watched special session around the holidays using a "message of necessity" to avoid the constitutional requirement of three days' public review.

In the 150-seat Assembly, as many as 107 members get leadership stipends, and in the 63-seat Senate, 87 extra paychecks for leadership posts are available, although no one may collect more than one.

These include an extra $41,500 for the Assembly speaker and Senate majority leader, followed by the Assembly majority leader ($34,500) and the Senate's deputy majority leader ($34,000).

Assembly and Senate minority party leaders each get an extra $34,500, while the chairmen of the powerful Assembly Ways and Means Committee and Senate Finance Committee get another $34,000. The smallest stipends are $9,000, for the top minority party member of some committees.

"The legislature sometimes bends over backward to invent titles to go with the money," said E.J. McMahon, president and founder of the Empire Center for Public Policy think tank.

To carry out those duties, legislators also get "per diem" expense checks of $172 for an overnight stay in Albany or for any other travel "in the performance of his or her duties," according to the law. No receipts are required, and lawmakers can keep whatever they don't spend on expenses.

Legislators can add to the per diems by arriving in Albany a day early, or staying another day working in committees or at hearings, or choosing to work from their Albany office or elsewhere away from home.

They can avoid spending much of the per diem by grabbing a meal at one of the frequent political fundraisers during the legislative session or by partaking in the spread sometimes offered by legislative conferences. For 2014, per diems would provide at least another $11,180 to a typical lawmaker.

Veteran Assemb. William Scarborough (D-Queens) was the latest lawmaker arrested on charges of abusing the per diem system. He was charged in October on federal and state counts and accused of bilking the state voucher system of $40,000 over four years for per diem allotments, gasoline and tolls.

Scarborough, who said he's innocent of the charges, said prosecutors don't understand the legislature's complex system of reimbursing expenses. Assembly records show he collected nearly $15,000 in travel expenses from Queens for legislative duties in Albany from Oct. 15 to March 25, although the legislature was in session only half that time.

"There obviously have been problems," state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said last week. "Our office has been involved in that . . . with two sitting legislators being indicted. So I think they need to tighten up their procedures."

 

'Subsidize your lifestyle'

The daily expense doesn't include transportation costs, including rental cars. But those can be reimbursed fully from the legislative budget as long as they meet a broad "reasonable" threshold and are used for state purposes.

Some top elected officials, including Silver, Skelos, Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb (R-Canandaigua) and at least four top Cuomo appointees, get state-paid cars, usually SUVs or sedans. For example, Schwartz, the $187,000-a-year secretary to the governor, gets a 2014 Ford Explorer. An Explorer and another common state car, a Ford Crown Victoria sedan, retail for more than $30,000.

Cuomo gets use of state police helicopters and jets to travel to and from his Westchester County home, a perk valued at $1,000 an hour.

Silver takes circuitous flights from Manhattan to Albany via Washington. Silver says it is the most efficient way for him to travel and continue to work with some confidentiality, without being surrounded by a trainload of Albany operatives.

For example, from October through March, Silver was reimbursed for $7,459 for travel to Albany. That's in addition to $1,054 in gas he was reimbursed for using a state-paid car, according to Assembly expenditure reports.

Also making life more comfortable for lawmakers and statewide elected officials are campaign funds. Incumbents have used donations -- most often from individuals, unions and companies that have business with the state -- to attract millions of dollars with little restriction on how to use it.

Campaign funds can pay for junkets, such as the pre-election trip to Israel paid for by the campaigns of Cuomo, Skelos and Silver, worth about $25,000 for each official.

They also pay for cars -- with fewer restrictions than those reimbursed under the legislative budget -- and Albany apartments for some lawmakers, restaurant bills for fundraisers and meetings, wine for holiday parties, donations to local charities, flowers, hotel stays, including the Somos El Futuro conference in Puerto Rico after the November elections, turkeys for Thanksgiving events, golf outings, civil penalties from local governments and to cover fees for filing campaign finance records late, country club memberships, defense lawyers in corruption cases, an indoor pool cover and smoked meat for Christmas presents, according to campaign records.

"If you know what you're doing, you can basically subsidize your lifestyle," said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

In 2005 Lee Daghlian, then a spokesman for the state Board of Elections, famously said of Albany's campaign finance laws: "Unless you out-and-out stick it in your pocket and walk away, everything's legal."

 

Pensions, other income

A top-flight health insurance plan is available to all state employees, and while pensions are becoming scarcer for most New Yorkers, legislators continue to enjoy a sweet one.

For example, former Gov. George Pataki gets a $101,200 annual pension, while former Democratic state Comptroller Alan Hevesi, a former assemblyman who went to prison in an influence-peddling scandal, is paid $105,941 a year in pension.

And contrary to most states, a New York lawmaker's job is part-time, allowing lawmakers to collect additional income from other jobs.

For Silver, the Assembly speaker, that means an added $650,000 to $750,000 a year, and for Skelos, the Senate leader, that means another $150,000 to $250,000 from their roles in law practices, according to state ethics filings.

"You can't merely look at this in terms of the base salary," said the Empire Center's McMahon.

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