ALBANY — The State Senate and Assembly cleared the way Monday for a voter referendum on a constitutional amendment to strip pensions from lawmakers convicted of felonies.
Each house overwhelmingly voted for the bill, the second time the full legislature has approved it, which is the final step before the proposed amendment goes before voters this fall. Notably, under the proposal, 1a convicted official wouldn’t automatically lose his/her pension, but could in an ensuing court review.
Lawmakers took the extraordinary step after the convictions of more than two dozen of their colleagues over the last decade on primarily corruption charges — including the former leaders of the Assembly and Senate in 2015. Despite being convicted, ex-lawmakers still qualify for lucrative state pensions. Ex-Senate leader Dean Skelos, the Rockville Centre lawmaker convicted along with his son, is slated to receive $95,000 annually, for example.
Rank-and-file lawmakers said the pension-stripping measure was necessary to restore public confidence and set a “zero tolerance” policy for corruption.
“From the governor to the legislature to local elected officials, if you violate the public trust and are convicted of a felony, you should forfeit the privilege of a public pension,” said Sen. Tom Croci (R-Sayville), lead sponsor of the bill in the Senate.
“This not only serves as a deterrent to elected officials but also serves to restore much-needed public trust,” said Assemb. Joseph Saladino (R-Massapequa). “The people of the state have been calling for it.”
Lawmakers are seeking to change a state constitutional provision that says public pensions can’t be reduced or taken away. The change would apply to not just elected officials but also gubernatorial appointees, municipal managers, department heads, chief fiscal officers and policymakers. Upon conviction, an official would be subject to a court review that could result in forfeiture or a reduction in his/her pension while considering the severity of the crime. It also grants a judge leeway to order pension benefits to be paid to innocent spouses, children and other dependents after reviewing their financial needs.
The Senate approved the measure, 57-4; the Assembly, 122-1. Opponents argued that pensions were a “property right” that shouldn’t be taken away from someone, even if convicted. Others said their colleagues were caving to media pressure.
“This is wrong. This is wrong. This is wrong,” Sen. Reuben Diaz (D-Bronx) said. “If I do something, then, yes, I go to jail. But then my wife is out on the street? Just to please the media?”