Governor Cuomo's appointees to a commission on whether or not state legislators should get pay raises are blocking raises, saying they can't go through until the state passes ethics reforms.
To recap: state lawmakers make $79,500 a year, are officially classified as part-time employees, and are allowed to have outside jobs, which good government advocates have long argued is a recipe for a New York-style self-dealing corruption soufflé. They have been proven right about this many times. You may recall the indictment and subsequent conviction last year of then-Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver and then-Senate leader Dean Skelos, two of the "three men in a room" alongside Governor Cuomo who controlled the legislature, on corruption charges. Both crooked legislators' pay-to-play schemes were enabled for years by weak financial disclosure requirements and the legality of bringing in outside income, which they used to explain away illicit payments from entities with business before the state.
Skelos and Silver were convicted within two weeks of each other in late 2015, and so all eyes were on Cuomo in January when he delivered his State of the State address. Cuomo did propose adopting the strict limits on outside income that Congress has had for decades, as good-government groups have long urged, and included a question about support for income limits on his unusual questionnaire for legislative candidates that he used to weigh endorsements ahead of the recent election.
However, from 2012-2014, before Republicans regained a majority in the Senate, Cuomo worked closely with the handful of registered Democrats known as the Independent Democratic Conference, whose siding with Republicans allowed conservatives to retain an artificial majority in the Senate while they were outnumbered, effectively undermining Cuomo's own ability to achieve progressive policy items. Indeed, the renewed actual Republican majority shot down Cuomo legislation to close the LLC loophole which allows rich people to subvert campaign contribution limits this summer. Cuomo did get one marginal reform passed, to do with limiting independent expenditure committees coordinating with candidates. Such committees have only a marginal role in New York politics, but Cuomo's office hailed the new rules as the "Nation's Strongest Protections to Combat Citizens United."
Which brings us to raises. State legislators have not gotten a raise since 1999. The appointed commission which decides on raises met yesterday to consider a proposal that would jack legislator salaries to more than $110,000 a year. Cuomo appointee Fran Reiter, one of three governor picks on the seven-person panel, torpedoed the proposal, saying they couldn't support a raise without legislation to "address the public’s concern and opposition by making the position effectively full-time and limiting outside income."
The commission's chair, Sheila Birnbaum, says that's not right. The law set a Nov. 15 deadline to act. (See: https://t.co/8crIIshAru)
— Jon Campbell (@JonCampbellGAN) November 15, 2016
The problem with this formulation, besides Cuomo's own allegiances putting reform off limits, is that the legislature is not in session—the Cuomo commissioners called for a special session—and yesterday was the legally mandated deadline for the commission to make a recommendation. Nevertheless, Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi told the New York Times, without offering evidence, that the panel has "until the end of the year" and "should keep working at it," a position echoed by another Cuomo commission appointee, Bob Megna. The committee's chairwoman, Sheila Birnbaum affirmed that the deadline was yesterday.
Roman Hedges, a representative appointed by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Democrat, had argued for a raise, saying it would make for a "more professional legislature," and objected to Cuomo's influence on the process.
"I think that it’s awful that the governor wants to be king," Hedges said. “I think it’s awful that the governor’s representatives here think that he should be king[...]I would like to recommend that everybody get a salary increase that is not tied to anything except for the fact that we need good people.”
Citizens Union director Dick Dadey concurred to the Times that it looks like Cuomo has his hand in the panel's business, saying, "This is intended to be an apolitical commission that appears to have acted politically by seeking an inappropriate quid pro quo."
Reiter, the commission member and a former senior aide to Cuomo, denied at the meeting that she was being told what to do. "My opinions are my own," she said, adding that she was "offended" by the assertion.
Facing a similar recommendation from a similar panel early this year, the New York City Council voted to approve $36,000 raises for members, tying the raises to a package of legislation barring outside income and strengthening financial disclosure requirements.
The recent state election left the Assembly under Democrat control and, with a Long Island Senate race still too close to call and party-fluid Brooklyn Senator Simcha Felder dithering about which party he'll choose based on the outcome, the dynamics of the Senate remain unsettled for the moment.
In a joint statement, Assembly Speaker Heastie and Senate Leader John Flanagan condemned the panel's decision:
It is unfortunate that the Governor’s appointees to the New York State Commission on Legislative, Judicial and Executive Compensation once again felt the need to demand legislative action in exchange for an increase in compensation. This is completely unacceptable and far exceeds the mandate of the Commission, which was to evaluate the need for an increase in compensation based primarily on economic factors.
As the Judiciary appointees of the Commission correctly noted, not only does its existence and charge expire on November 15, they too were troubled by attaching legislative action to pay compensation. Despite the Governor’s appointees’ refusal to discharge their duties, the Legislature will continue to focus on issues that truly matter to New Yorkers and help move our State forward.”
The pay commission isn't scheduled to reconvene until 2019, to recommend pay increases that would go into effect in 2021.