Ques­tions swirl over panel’s pay-raise OK

Fu­ture of in­creases, out­side in­come rules still lack­ing an­swers

Albany Times Union - - FRONT PAGE - By Chris Bragg and David Lombardo

A day af­ter a panel voted to give New York law­mak­ers a sig­nif­i­cant raise for the first time in two decades, many ques­tions re­mained, in­clud­ing what re­forms state leg­is­la­tors will have to pass in exchange for fu­ture hikes – and whether the process im­ple­ment­ing the raises is le­gal.

In ad­di­tion, some Cap­i­tal Re­gion law­mak­ers’ fu­tures is uncer­tain. If new re­stric­tions on out­side in­come are en­acted, law­mak­ers with sub­stan­tial out­side in­comes might be prompted to leave their pub­lic po­si­tions.

By law, the four-mem­ber

com­pen­sa­tion com­mit­tee, which was cre­ated by state law­mak­ers, must send its writ­ten rec­om­men­da­tions by Mon­day to Gov. An­drew M. Cuomo and the state Leg­is­la­ture. Ahead of the re­port’s re­lease, a num­ber of law­mak­ers were with­hold­ing judg­ment until the spe­cific lan­guage of the doc­u­ment is known.

A spokesman for As­sem­bly Speaker Carl Heastie — whose con­fer­ence will have to de­cide whether to pass the re­forms rec­om­mended in exchange for fu­ture pay raises — de­clined to com­ment until the writ­ten re­port is avail­able for re­view.

Un­der the rec­om­men­da­tions de­scribed at the panel’s meeting this week, law­mak­ers would re­ceive their first salary in­crease in less than a month, with a $30,500 in­crease to $110,000 tak­ing ef­fect in Jan­uary. Their base pay would rise to $120,000 in 2020, and reach $130,000 in 2021.

In or­der to secure raises af­ter 2019, the Leg­is­la­ture might be forced to adopt leg­is­la­tion that re­stricts their abil­ity to earn in­come from pri­vate em­ploy­ment.

The com­mit­tee en­dorsed im­pos­ing on leg­is­la­tors the same lim­i­ta­tions as members of Congress, who are lim­ited to earn­ing 15 per­cent of their gov­ern­ment salary from out­side in­come and are pro­hib­ited from cer­tain pri­vate pro­fes­sions. Any lim­i­ta­tions, as pro­posed by the com­mit­tee, wouldn’t take ef­fect until Jan. 1, 2020 — or mid­way through the next two-year leg­isla­tive cy­cle and be­fore the Novem­ber 2020 elec­tions.

Af­ter Jan­uary 2020, leg­is­la­tors could still earn up to $18,000 in out­side in­come un­der this pro­posal.

In the Cap­i­tal Re­gion, Sen­a­tors Neil Bres­lin and Ge­orge Ame­dore, and As­sem­bly members Mary Beth Walsh, John Mcdon­ald and Phil Steck, each earned more than the pro­posed cap from an­nual out­side in­come in 2017, ac­cord­ing to their fi­nan­cial dis­clo­sure forms.

Eileen Miller, a spokes­woman for Ame­dore, a Repub­li­can home­builder with a sig­nif­i­cant in­come from that busi­ness, said the law­maker is await­ing the fi­nal re­port be­fore mak­ing a de­ci­sion about his fu­ture.

Ame­dore op­poses the pay in­creases, but also the in­come lim­its, be­cause they would limit the abil­ity of peo­ple with real-world busi­ness ex­pe­ri­ence to serve in the Leg­is­la­ture, Miller said.

“The fear is that it would di­min­ish the qual­ity of the Leg­is­la­ture,” Miller said.

An­other Cap­i­tal Re­gion law­maker who could be im­pacted is Mcdon­ald, a for­mer Cohoes mayor and phar­ma­cist whose fam­ily has oper­ated a phar­macy in that city for decades.

Mcdon­ald said on Fri­day that he planned to “find a way” to con­tinue op­er­at­ing the phar­macy busi­ness while serv­ing in the Leg­is­la­ture.

“I’m not go­ing to let four peo­ple in a room de­cide what to do with my fam­ily busi­ness of 88 years,” Mcdon­ald said. “We serve peo­ple all over the Cap­i­tal Re­gion. We de­liver to peo­ple that work in the state Capi­tol. I’m not just go­ing to close up shop.”

Also, it’s pos­si­ble there may be no pro­hi­bi­tion to law­mak­ers with out­side in­come shift­ing the in­come from their pri­vate busi­ness in­ter­ests to fam­ily members, in­clud­ing spouses.

Mcdon­ald wor­ried, how­ever, that other busi­ness­peo­ple would de­cide not to run for of­fice if the pay re­stric­tions were im­posed. He said the re­stric­tions could also cre­ate a new class of law­mak­ers with less di­verse types of ex­pe­ri­ence and who may be more re­liant on the sup­port of spe­cial in­ter­est groups.

Mcdon­ald noted that fol­low­ing cor­rup­tion scan­dals in­volv­ing for­mer As­sem­bly Speaker Shel­don Sil­ver and oth­ers, the Leg­is­la­ture had passed a num­ber of re­forms re­lat­ing to the dis­clo­sure of out­side in­come. With Democrats set to take charge of the state Se­nate next month, a num­ber of pre­vi­ously stalled mea­sures also will likely be passed, he said.

Still, there was no men­tion on Thurs­day by com­pen­sa­tion­panel members of any pro­posal to limit the out­side in­come of ex­ec­u­tive branch employees.

“I find it in­ter­est­ing that the out­side in­come limit ap­plies to the Leg­is­la­ture, but not statewide elected of­fi­cials,” Mcdon­ald said.

It’s more than the­o­ret­i­cal: While in of­fice, Cuomo has made more than $780,000 off the pub­li­ca­tion of his mem­oir, “All Things Pos­si­ble,” de­spite the book’s poor sales.

Al­bany Assem­bly­woman Pa­tri­cia Fahy, a fel­low Demo­crat, said law­mak­ers in­clud­ing Ame­dore and Mcdon­ald have been valu­able as­sets to the Leg­is­la­ture due to their busi­ness ex­pe­ri­ence.

“Small- and medium-sized busi­nesses are the back­bone of the up­state econ­omy, so hav­ing a home­builder or the phar­ma­cist or a cof­fee shop owner is very im­por­tant,” said Fahy, who has no out­side in­come, and took a sub­stan­tial pay cut to be­come a state law­maker. “You want to have a broad breadth of ex­pe­ri­ences, and peo­ple who have the pulses of their own com­mu­ni­ties.”

Fahy was not sure whether the As­sem­bly Demo­cratic con­fer­ence would re­spond to the pro­posal re­strict­ing out­side in­come. She hoped that law­mak­ers could make it pos­si­ble for law­mak­ers such as Mcdon­ald and Ame­dore to con­tinue to serve, while ad­dress­ing the kinds of prob­lems that arose around for­mer As­sem­bly Speaker Shel­don Sil­ver, whose lu­cra­tive but il­le­gal out­side work — in the form of kick­backs — led to his fed­eral con­vic­tion on cor­rup­tion charges.

Some law­mak­ers re­acted fa­vor­ably to the pro­pos­als. Demo­cratic state Sen.-elect An­drew Gounardes, an at­tor­ney from Brook­lyn, said the panel’s pro­posal is a good one since the sig­nif­i­cant pay raises come with the re­quire­ment that law­mak­ers es­sen­tially serve full-time.

Yet the fu­ture of the re­form re­mains murky: Comptroller Thomas Dinapoli, a mem­ber of the four-per­son com­pen­sa­tion com­mit­tee, said last week that it was open to ques­tion whether the com­mit­tee had the abil­ity to im­pose the re­stric­tion on out­side in­come.

Com­mit­tee Chair H. Carl Mccall, a for­mer state comptroller, con­cluded Thurs­day’s meeting by re­fer­ring vaguely to a num­ber of good gov­ern­ment re­forms, such as cam­paign fi­nance re­form, that the com­mit­tee might in­clude in its fi­nal re­port. It’s not clear if those is­sues would be part of the per­for­mance mea­sures used to de­ter­mine whether law­mak­ers would re­ceive fu­ture in­creases.

The com­mit­tee also ex­pressed sup­port for elim­i­nat­ing most leg­isla­tive lead­er­ship stipends, which start at $9,000 a year. They pro­posed re­tain­ing the perk for a hand­ful of top lead­ers, in­clud­ing the $41,500 for the Se­nate ma­jor­ity leader and As­sem­bly speaker.

Last week, dur­ing the com­mit­tee’s sec­ond hear­ing, Heastie, the lone state leg­is­la­tor to tes­tify pub­licly be­fore the panel, voiced sup­port for a pay raise, but wouldn’t make a com­mit­ment to lim­it­ing out­side in­come.

In­com­ing Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader An­drea Ste­wart-cousins, a Demo­crat, re­vealed on Thurs­day that she re­cently voiced her sup­port for a wage in­crease in pri­vate dis­cus­sions with the com­mit­tee members. She also in­di­cated the state Se­nate will likely pass lim­i­ta­tions on out­side in­come in the up­com­ing leg­isla­tive ses­sion.

Many of the law­mak­ers mak­ing sub­stan­tial out­side in­comes are part of the state Se­nate Repub­li­can con­fer­ence, who will be in the leg­isla­tive mi­nor­ity in Jan­uary for the first time since 2010.

A Ste­wart-cousins spokesman de­clined to say why she de­clined to pub­licly tes­tify, or how she came to be pri­vately in con­tact with com­mit­tee members.

It’s un­clear how many other state law­mak­ers may have reached out pri­vately to the com­mit­tee’s members.

The com­pen­sa­tion com­mit­tee’s web­site does in­clude a cat­a­logue of writ­ten com­ments it has re­ceived.

Be­sides Heastie, the com­mit­tee also re­ceived com­ment from Repub­li­can state Sen. Chris Jacobs, who rec­om­mended end­ing stipends for com­mit­tee and lead­er­ship po­si­tions. In ad­di­tion, Demo­cratic As­sem­bly­man James Sk­oufis and Repub­li­can As­sem­bly­man Kevin Byrne jointly called for an end to the prac­tice of law­mak­ers “dou­ble-dip­ping,” or col­lect­ing both salaries and state pen­sions at the same time.

The panel also rec­om­mended in­creas­ing the gover­nor’s salary of $179,000 to $200,000 in Jan­uary. It would in­crease to $225,000 in 2020 and $250,000 in 2021.

The lieu­tenant gover­nor’s salary of $151,500 would be $190,000 in 2019, $210,000 in 2020, and $220,000 in 2021.

The rec­om­men­da­tions for the gover­nor and lieu­tenant gover­nor would re­quire ac­tion by the state Leg­is­la­ture to im­ple­ment.

The salary for the state comptroller and at­tor­ney gen­eral would go from $151,500 to $190,000 in 2019, $210,000 in 2020, and $220,000 in 2021.

The com­mit­tee has been dogged since its cre­ation in the state bud­get by ques­tions about its le­git­i­macy, in­clud­ing whether the state con­sti­tu­tion al­lows law­mak­ers to del­e­gate the pay in­crease is­sue.

For one, Queens­bury res­i­dent and con­sti­tu­tional ac­tivist Robert Schulz, who has filed law­suits against state gov­ern­ment in the past, says the pay raise is il­le­gal.

Repub­li­can state Sen. Sue Serino, a re­al­tor from Hyde Park, is­sued a state­ment on Fri­day op­pos­ing the panel’s rec­om­men­da­tions be­cause non-politi­cians across the state were strug­gling to make ends meet.

“What’s worse, this process com­pletely cir­cum­vented the voices of New York­ers by by­pass­ing the Leg­is­la­ture and the very peo­ple elected to rep­re­sent them,” Serino said. “Fur­ther, I be­lieve this pro­posal put forth by the pay com­mis­sion cre­ates a sit­u­a­tion that will ab­so­lutely en­cour­age law­mak­ers to be­come ca­reer politi­cians.”

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