Lawmakers' hopes for pay raise dim
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It’s looking less likely that state lawmakers will be getting a long-awaited pay raise next year. A commission designed to take  politics out of the issue is now coming under political pressure not to grant the salary increase.

State Senators and Assembly members, as well as governors, have not received a pay hike since 1999.  A streak of record late budgets in the early 2000’s and more recently, a series of corruption scandals has made it politically difficult for lawmakers to vote for a pay raise. So, in 2015, they agreed with Governor Cuomo to set up a commission to study pay increases, in order to remove the issue  from day to day politics.

But Governor Cuomo has been needling legislators about the issue since the summer, saying lawmaker’s performance “hasn’t been great”, pointing out that 29 legislators have been implicated in crimes, including both former legislative leaders, who are facing stiff prison sentences for corruption.  Cuomo says lawmakers need to appear before the commission publicly and make the case why they need more pay.

“You have to say what you’re doing or what you would do to justify that raise,” Cuomo said.    

And the governor says those who have testified so far, are against the pay raise.

“A number of legislators have been saying publicly there shouldn’t be a pay raise,” Cuomo said. “And a number have said if there is a pay raise we’re not going to accept it.”

In order to make a decision, the pay commission does not require any public testimony from lawmakers. They had been considering a proposal to raise base pay from $79,500 a year to around  $113,000 a year or higher . Assembly appointee Roman Hedges at a September 22nd meeting said  the amount is based on the rate of inflation over the past 17 years.

“To me, that’s a modest increase,” Hedges said. “I understand that in the aggregate that adds up to a big number because it’s been a long time.”

But some commissioners appointed by Governor Cuomo are expressing doubts.

Fran Reiter, one of three of Cuomo’s appointees to the commission, echoed the governor’s request that lawmakers make a public plea. She says all the input that the commission has received has been against the pay raise.

“Based on all we’ve heard, it’s my opinion that there is no possible justification for this commission to recommend any legislative pay raise whatsoever,” Reiter said.

The governor controls three of the seven appointments, and they have the power to stop a salary increase.

Hedges, the Assembly appointee, countered that the whole point of the commission is to make the decision without  lawmakers have to express their opinions .

“It was to de-politicize,” said Hedges, who accused lawmakers who testified against the increases of “grandstanding” .

Reiter answered that there’s no realistic way that politics can be absent from any decision the commission makes.

“It’s too much of a hot-button issue,” she said.

Cuomo’s aides floated the idea to lawmakers that perhaps they might stand a better chance of convincing the commission to okay a pay hike if they agreed to greater ethics reform. Trades for pay are not unprecedented. In  1999, then Governor George Pataki got charter schools approved in exchange for his agreement to raise lawmakers pay.

That drew an angry response from the Assembly Speaker, Carl Heastie, who’s said publicly that legislators deserve a raise. Heastie , in a statement, accused “some” of trying to “politicize this process by suggesting legislators testify or trade legislation”.

Cuomo’s aides say they did not suggest a  direct trade, and the governor would not be twisting the arms of any of his appointees on the commission to change their minds, it would be up to lawmakers to make the argument themselves.

The commission is also considering a pay raise for Governor Cuomo and his agency commissioners. The governor would get an increase to $263,000 a year from the current $179,000. And agency commissioners could receive up to $200,000. Cuomo has already said publicly, that his commissioners need to earn more. He says he’s had trouble attracting top quality candidates.

“So I’ll go first, I’m going to argue to the commission that we need to pay commissioners more to get top-flight people,” Cuomo said on August 8th.

Cuomo’s budget director wrote a letter to the pay commission earlier this month, outlining the governor’s concerns about the relatively low pay for his commissioners.

The pay commission will hold one more meeting  in October. They are due to make a  final decision on November 15th, one week after Election Day.