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Amid new raises, NY legislators can still earn outside income, judge rules

A special pay raise panel created by Gov.

A special pay raise panel created by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, above, and legislators has power only to change lawmakers' salaries, a judge ruled. Credit: Howard Schnapp

ALBANY — A judge on Thursday tossed a ban on state legislators' ability to earn outside incomes.

State Supreme Court Justice Richard Platkin ruled a special pay raise commission created by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and legislators had power only to change lawmakers' salaries but not to ban lawmakers from earning money from other sources.

“There is nothing (in the law) that authorized it to recommend restrictions on outside income and employment that have the force of law,” Platkin wrote. “These policy matters remain reserved for the Legislature and governor.”

Though it's likely to be appealed, it's a ruling that could have significant bearing on which legislators run for re-election in 2020. Elected officials and watchdog groups have said a ban on outside incomes could trigger a rash of retirements. 

Watchdog groups have supported an income ban, saying it would prevent conflicts of interest and reduce corruption. Opponents say the state constitution envisions a part-time "citizen legislature," not a full-time, more expensive professional political class.

The lawsuit centered on the authority of the New York State Committee on Legislative and Executive Compensation. It was created in 2018 to study whether to raise the pay of state legislators, the governor and other state officials, whose salaries have been frozen since 1999.

It ultimately recommended raising legislators’ base pay from $79,500 annually to $130,000, phased in over three years. The first step took effect in January, boosting lawmakers’ pay to $110,000.

It also recommended raising the governor’s pay from $178,000 annually to $250,000, also phased in. Under the statute that created it, the committee’s recommendations on salary became law because the legislature didn’t vote to alter them within 20 days.

Legislators are considered part time and have always been able to earn unlimited outside salaries. But the panel also voted to adopt the "congressional model" for the state legislators, by making them full time and capping outside incomes at 15 percent of their legislative salaries.

Platkin, however, ruled that's where the panel went too far. The recommendations on outside income weren't authorized in the statute creating the panel, and, therefore, merely are suggestions that may be considered by the governor and legislators. The outside income ban is not "legally binding," the judge wrote.

The lawsuit was filed by 11 Republican state legislators. The group included lawyers, insurance professionals, a farmer and a funeral director. One of them, Assemb. Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk), called Platkin's ruling "appropriate." He said the income ban is an issue for lawmakers, not a commission.

"If we're going to do it, we should step up and do it, and not hand it to a group of political appointees to do the governor's bidding," Palumbo, a private attorney, said, referring to Cuomo's support for an income ban.

Assemb. Andrew Garbarino (R-Sayville), another one of the plaintiffs who has a law practice, said the state constitution envisioned a "citizen legislature." 

 "You want people from all walks of life. You want people who bring different perspectives," Garbarino said. 

Cuomo's office didn't immediately comment on the ruling. An aide to Attorney General Letitia James, a Democrat whose office was defending the state's action, said the case was still being reviewed.

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