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Legal action calls state pay raise committee unconstitutional

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in Manhattan on Sept.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in Manhattan on Sept. 18. Credit: Charles Eckert

ALBANY — A government watchdog group on Friday filed legal action to stop the planned pay raises of as much as 60 percent over three years for state legislators and other top state officials.

The legal action argues that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and legislators acted unconstitutionally when they created a committee that would recommend pay raises beginning Jan. 1 with the “force of law” to avoid casting politically difficult votes.

 “The Legislature and the committee have overstepped their constitutional and legal bounds,” states the legal complaint by the Government Justice Center filed in state Supreme Court in Albany. The legal action seeks a judgment that the committee and its decision to provide pay raises are “unlawful, invalid and unenforceable."

The center and several legal experts in separate interviews have said the constitution appears to prohibit lawmakers from providing the power to create law to an appointed committee. They said the constitution also appears to state that pay raises can only be made by the legislature through traditional bills and public votes.

The state Legislative and Executive Compensation Committee on Monday reported that legislative salaries should rise to $130,000 by Jan. 1, 2021, in phases, and that the governor’s salary should rise from $179,000 to $250,000 over the same period. The committee also set raises from other statewide officials and top Cuomo administration staff. The committee required the legislature to accept limits on members' outside income and a sharp reduction in the number of lucrative leadership stipends.

The Government Justice Center describes itself as a nonpartisan legal center that supports New Yorkers’ rights in the face of government action. Its board includes members from the conservative Manhattan Institute and Reclaim New York, a group associated with Long Island billionaire Robert Mercer, who has funded conservative causes.

Cuomo dismissed the lawsuit as a conservative effort to help the Senate Republicans, who lost their majority control in the November elections. Because of the pay raise plan, several Senate Republicans will have to decide in 2019 whether to remain in the Legislature or end their lucrative outside jobs at law firms and other private enterprises, including a pharmacy owned by a legislator.

The committee said limiting outside income to 15 percent of their new, higher salaries is a way to avoid potential conflicts of interest.

 Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has criticized the pay raise plan because it drastically reduces leadership stipends for committee chairmanships and other leadership posts. Critics of the stipends worth $9,000 to $41,000 have said the extra pay provides the top leaders of the Senate and Assembly with leverage over key members.

The legal action also accuses the committee of violating the state Open Meetings Law because its final report contained actions that weren’t discussed in the brief open meetings.

“I believe the law is going to be upheld,” Cuomo said Friday. “The commission was highly credible and they came up with a raise and reforms, which is what people of the state wanted. The legislature is now saying, ‘We want the raises without the reforms.’ ”

Cuomo said that if the legislature wants a pay raise without the reforms previously sought by the governor, then the legislature should take its own public votes and risk the political fallout.

“There has been some criticism from the governor about this being a partisan nature,” said Cameron J. Macdonald of the Government Justice Center in an interview. “It’s just completely nonpartisan. The reality is that it is the New York State constitution that is being violated. The rule of law should be winning the day here and not the ends justifying the means.

“It could be good policy, but it was not the way to do it,” he said. “Transparency is a big thing.”

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