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Possible raise for legislators gives Cuomo chance to get other changes

Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks Thursday, Dec. 11, 2014

Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks Thursday, Dec. 11, 2014 in Albany. Photo Credit: AP

ALBANY - With state lawmakers seeking their first pay raise in 16 years, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is in position to bargain for some priorities that have been blocked in recent years, analysts said.

Cuomo and legislative leaders have been discussing holding a special legislative session by Dec. 31 to address not only legislators' pay but also salaries of Cuomo administration commissioners. The last legislative pay raise occurred in 1998.

Cuomo, a Democrat, has said he could support a pay hike, but wants changes in campaign-finance laws and tighter restrictions on lawmakers' outside incomes -- initiatives he's previously tried but failed to get.

Special sessions have a history of tying together unrelated issues. So the big questions are: What does Cuomo want and how much are legislators willing to do?

"If all Cuomo does is swap legislative pay for executive pay increases, I don't think the public will consider that much of a grand bargain," said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University and a longtime New York political observer. "They will look at it as an opportunity to get much more."

The last time legislators persuaded a governor to go along with a pay raise, in 1999, Gov. George Pataki scored a political victory. The Republican traded the raise for legislators' approval to allow charter schools into New York.

Since lawmakers are barred from raising their salaries during their terms, a pay raise must be approved before the end of the year to cover the new legislature taking office in January.

Legislators have said a special session should be used to earmark a $4 billion windfall from national financial settlements. That could be used for various infrastructure projects around the state.

But they said other issues have been raised, such as expanding the number of charter schools -- which many Democrats oppose -- and college aid for children of immigrants in the state illegally -- which many Republicans oppose.

"It's all in his calculus -- how he prioritizes what he might trade," Baruch College political scientist Doug Muzzio said of the governor. "My gut is he wants something tangible."

He said Cuomo isn't likely to pass up an opportunity to get something he wants. "You know the governor will trade in his best interests," Muzzio said. "He's going to extract as much as he can."

New York's 213 state legislators receive a base yearly salary of $79,500, though many get stipends for leadership posts that drive the average pay above $90,000. Since the job is considered part time, many earn outside income through law, real estate and other businesses.

Senior lawmakers said the governor is floating several ideas tied to the pay raise. One includes requiring lawmakers to submit expense receipts for their $172 per-diem payments received for overnight work in Albany and on other state business away from home. There is little oversight now of these tax-free payments, which have been the subject of federal corruption investigations. Lawmakers can keep whatever they don't spend.

Another issue in the mix would limit personal use of campaign funds for cars, trips, meals and other spending that has been used to soften the pinch of a stagnant salary.

Cuomo has said he also wants to mandate that lawmakers' sources of "outside income could have nothing do with the state. Period."

That could affect legislators on both sides of the political aisle, a number of whom work for law firms with state-government interests.

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