Members of the New York Senate in the Senate Chamber...

Members of the New York Senate in the Senate Chamber at the state Capitol in July.

Credit: AP/Hans Pennink

ALBANY — After court wrangling partially derailed a series of pay raises for state legislators, they might be poised to soon to take control of the issue themselves.

Legislators currently earn $110,000 in annual salary. But a plan to raise it to $130,000 in a series of step increases as put forth by a compensation commission back in 2018 was struck down by a court ruling over a separate but related provision to cap their outside incomes.

Now, lawmakers are discussing convening in Albany next week to pass a bill to implement the commission’s recommended salary, as well as tossing in scheduled cost-of-living adjustments, sources said. That would make New York legislators the highest paid in the nation, surpassing California’s $119,720.

The bill also could include a new cap on lawmakers’ outside incomes, setting it at 15% above annual salary, and forbid a lawmaker from holding a post that contains a fiduciary responsibility to clients. By enacting such limits themselves, lawmakers will work around the problem cited by the courts, which was the commission had no authority to address outside incomes.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • State lawmakers are discussing convening in Albany next week to pass a bill to implement a recommended pay hike that would make them the highest paid in the nation.
  • A commission had recommended in 2018 raising their pay to $130,000 in a series of step increases, but the raise was struck down by a court ruling over a separate but related issue.
  • The bill also could include a new cap on lawmakers’ outside incomes, setting it at 15% above annual salary.

Good-government groups have long championed income caps, saying it would help limit potential conflicts of interest.

The idea for a pay raise got a huge boost recently from Gov. Kathy Hochul.

"I believe they deserve a pay raise. They've worked extraordinarily hard," Hochul told reporters at a recent subway groundbreaking event. “It's a year-round job. I've been with them many times in their districts and they work very hard and they deserve it.”

Left unsaid: Statewide elected officials, such as the governor or attorney general, and state agency commissioners already received hefty raises that weren’t challenged in court.

So while the executive branch received raises promised years ago, the legislative branch didn’t. That's part of the motivation for acting now though Republicans are calling the pay-hike prospect tone deaf.

For two decades, the political thorny issue of voting on their own pay raise had kept frozen the salaries of New York’s legislators at $79,500 — a rate set in 1998. Generous leadership and committee stipends pushed the average salary above $100,000.

The governor’s salary was locked in at $179,000.

In 2018, then-Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and legislators created a compensation commission, which would remove lawmakers from directly voting on salaries. Watchdog groups criticized it for being composed of political appointees rather than being independent.

In short, the panel recommended a series of raises for the executive and legislative branches. Step raise for judges had been implemented previously.

The panel said the governor’s salary would go to $200,000 in 2019, $225,000 in 2020 and $250,000 in 2021. Legislators would go to $110,00 to $120,000 to $130,000 over the same period.

But the panel also sought to impose a ban on outside incomes — which was challenged by a group of Republican legislators who said the state constitution clearly calls the Legislature a part-time occupation and allows for outside jobs.

A court agreed and tossed the outside-income ban. But by the time it ruled, the first salary step had been implemented, bringing legislators’ pay to $110,000. The court let that stand, but essentially blocked any further increases because they were tied to the now-stricken ban on outside incomes.

The ruling didn’t impact executive salaries.

Meanwhile, a second lawsuit challenged the validity of the compensation commission altogether, claiming legislators unconstitutionally delegated their authority to the commission. However, last month, the state’s highest court ruled the commission legal but took no action to reinstall the scheduled pay hikes.

Now, some lawmakers are talking about returning to the State Capitol to enact what the compensation commission intended.

Recently, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) said he supported the raise.

“I believe that legislators need to be compensated for the hard work that they do,” Heastie told reporters on Dec. 8. “People don't realize the sacrifice that they make being away from their families. I don't think there's enough money in the world that could compensate you for being away from your families.”

Heastie also said the talk had been spurred by the November court decision.

He said at the time that there was no talk “at this moment” of convening lawmakers. But since then, sources have said discussions are occurring. Under one scenario, a bill could be introduced Monday, sit for the required three-day waiting period, then be taken up for a vote Thursday

The reason for a December vote is simple: The constitution prohibits lawmakers from raising their own salaries amid their standard two-year terms. By voting in December, the new salary could take effect after Jan. 1, which is the start of a new term, technically a new legislature.

Republicans criticized the idea — and the timing.

“Our state is facing an affordability crisis. A crime crisis. Yet the Albany establishment is too focused on potentially giving themselves a pay raise to worry about those issues,” Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt, a Niagara County Republican, said. “Patently offensive to the people we represent.”

Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, said any pay hike should be accompanied by a hard limit on outside incomes — which, he noted, “would not affect the vast majority of legislators” but would limit potential conflicts of interests.

He didn’t take issue with the raise itself but said watchdogs want any future hikes to be set by a truly independent panel, not one appointed by lawmakers.

“It should be an independent commission that sets what’s the reasonable compensation for state lawmakers in New York. It could be $130,000. It could be $100,000 — I don’t know what the appropriate level is,” Horner said. “But if you’re going to set a pay scale for the executive and legislative branch, it should be done by an independent agency, not one controlled by the governor and legislative leaders.”

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