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New York's attorney general sides with the politicians

New York State Attorney General Letitia James during

New York State Attorney General Letitia James during a press conference at her Manhattan office on May 2. Credit: Charles Eckert

A knock against Letitia James during her campaign for New York State attorney general in 2018 was a concern that she would be too cozy with Albany powerbrokers, that her insider political game would overshadow her legal role to look after the interests of all New Yorkers. 

Disappointingly, the concern was warranted. The cesspool created by Albany's pay-to-play politics is well known and has ushered more than a few lawmakers into handcuffs. That’s why legislators and other state officials should be paid a reasonable wage, with a tight ban on outside income that can so easily become graft.

Lawmakers long wanted a bump in salary, but not necessarily any direction on their ethics, so the leaders punted to a Committee on Legislative, Judicial & Executive Compensation. That 2018 panel's appointees recommended pay boosts, plus a cap on outside income set at 15 percent of salary, among other smart reforms. Then the legal challenges from outraged legislators began. Taking issue in part with whether it was constitutional to delegate authority to a commission, in two cases, judges blocked the outside-income restrictions and the future pay jumps.

Rather than vigorously take the side of the commission to the end, James’ office did not appeal in one case and withdrew an appeal in the other last month. 

The result is that base pay for state lawmakers was allowed to make the first jump from $79,500 to $110,000 this year, but the ban on outside income got the boot.

Albany pols got the cash without giving up much.

Even more troubling is that the state's highest legal officer refused to explain her office's rationale for withdrawing an appeal.

At this point, a good-government group representing plaintiffs in one suit is trying  its own lonely luck on appeal to block all of the commission's recommendations. 

James should remember that her first loyalty is to the voters and taxpayers in the state who have said over and over again that they want honest government. Even if she lost these cases, having the state's highest court determine the scope of commissions like this is invaluable.

When lawmakers return to Albany, they can take the pay and outside income issues up themselves. They must. — The editorial board