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Albany pay-raise commission must get tough on lawmakers

New York Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie of the

New York Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie of the Bronx has refused to commit to ethics reforms in return for pay raises for members of the State Senate and Assembly. Credit: AP / Hans Pennink

When it comes to pay raises, our state legislators just want more money. The people, though, want corruption in Albany stopped. That cleanup has to start with a ban on almost all outside income for Assembly and Senate members. And strict limits are needed on extra stipends, called “lulus,” which leaders hand out in exchange for unquestioning loyalty under the guise of greater workloads.

What the people want ought to matter, and in the long run, it usually does. That’s a fact everyone involved in this wrestling match needs to keep in mind. Thus far, every effort regarding the commission examining the question of raises has been intended to thwart the voters, not serve them — including its creation by lawmakers and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo this spring so lawmakers could avoid voting in their own hikes.

With the state compensation commission expected to wrap up its work this week, lawmakers could get the money they want without the people of New York getting the ethics reforms they deserve. That should not be allowed to happen. But the word is that it could, if at least three of the four commissioners agree on a raise despite Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins pointedly refusing to guarantee reforms.

Two commission members, State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli and New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, were elected to exercise oversight of the honest and responsible use of the people’s money. If they and their fellow commissioners, SUNY Board of Trustees Chairman H. Carl McCall and CUNY board of trustees Chairman Bill Thompson, cannot force themselves to deny legislators and top state officials a raise, then any raise they authorize must be accompanied by a written demand for reform so strong it makes it clear that a refusal would be a travesty.

Here’s what’s fair:

  • A pay increase, the first in 20 years, from $79,500 a year to approximately $120,000.
  • An increase of the five-month legislating schedule to year-round.
  • A strict limit on outside sources of earned income that both puts a hard cap on such earnings and limits the type of work legislators can do to tasks like teaching and writing. The raise should kick in only when the ban goes into place.
  • A vast curtailing of lulus, currently received by about three-quarters of legislators, to just the few true leadership positions.
  • An end to the loopholes on political contributions that let donors use shell corporations to kick in unlimited amounts of cash.

There is a clear method in state law for legislators to increase their own salaries and those of other top state officials. All they have to do is vote for it publicly and get the governor to agree. They demanded the creation of this commission specifically to evade that law and get pay hikes — without voting on the record and without passing reforms.

The commissioners need to side with the people, not the legislators. If they can’t bring themselves to deny the raises outright, they must at least make it clear what a stark betrayal it will be if the legislators deny the reforms.