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No cap, no pay raise for lawmakers

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) speaks on Jan.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) speaks on Jan. 29. Credit: AP/Hans Pennink

The state commission that gave Albany lawmakers a spectacular pay raise because those elected officials were too afraid to vote for one themselves was a contrivance from the start. The commission tied the pay hike to a cap on outside income, an anti-corruption measure lawmakers always claimed they supported but never enacted.

The commission scheme was palatable because it finally got a strong anti-corruption measure in place and eliminated juicy lulus, or stipends, that ranged from $9,000 to $41,500 a year. At the same time, a pay raise was in order because salaries were stagnant for 20 years and competitive pay might attract talented and competent individuals into public service.

Now it’s all coming undone as legislative leaders are shamefully copping out of their promise to clean up Albany.

Republican Assembly members brought two cases challenging the commission’s legal authority to limit outside income. Earlier this month, the first case got decided with State Supreme Court Justice Christina Ryba ruling that the first pay hike, which increased salaries from $79,500 to $110,000 for 2019, was legal.

But she found that the 2020 and 2021 increases of $10,000 annually were not legal because in those years an $18,000 cap on outside income would take effect

Almost everyone involved is unhappy with the contradictory and confusingly written decision, and appeals are likely. The plaintiffs want to negate all of the commission’s rulings, even the pay hikes, because those decisions were not done by the elected officials themselves.

But Speaker Carl Heastie, who had the chutzpah to file a friend-of-the-court brief also claiming the cap and lulus ban were illegal, wants the ruling on the 2020 and 2021 raises overturned.

Getting all three years of salary increases would make New York lawmakers the highest paid in the nation. But members of the Assembly and Senate don’t deserve that distinction if they won’t agree to end the lure of outside dollars that thwart honest government. While some members have professions and family businesses that are not caught up in Albany’s pay-to-play culture, it’s fair to ask that a job that pays $130,000 be considered full time.

Lawmakers can fix the issue raised in the court challenge by finally voting to cap their own income. There still is time in the waning days of this legislative session. Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins both have said they support caps. If honor and keeping your word aren’t reasons to act, perhaps their members can be persuaded to play the odds.

On appeal, the plaintiffs could succeed in their goal to void the commission. Not only would salaries be bumped back to $79,500, the extra money already paid could be clawed back, too. Another possible outcome is that the challenge is thrown out, meaning the income cap remains in place and all the raises are permitted. Or the ruling stands, and there’s no cap but the lawmakers lose $20,000 a year.

From the taxpayers’ point of view, there is only one option. No agreement to cap outside income means the courts should toss all the raises as well.

— The editorial board