Resentments remain over pay increase for state lawmakers

Jan 4, 2019

Democratic state legislators are beginning the new year with some resentment toward Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo over a deal that gives them a big raise — but comes with several strings attached.

In March 2018, Cuomo and the Legislature agreed to set up a pay commission to examine the salaries of senators, Assembly members and the governor, who had not seen a raise in 20 years. The deal permitted the commission to have the final say on whether pay would go up, so lawmakers would not be required to cast a potentially unpopular vote to raise their own salaries.

The commission issued its report in mid-December and granted a $50,000 raise for state legislators to be phased in over three years, giving lawmakers a $130,000 salary by 2021. However, it said the increase should be dependent on some changes made in the Senate and Assembly.

The commission recommended that dozens of stipends awarded to lawmakers who serve on committees and in leadership posts be eliminated, and that outside income be restricted to 15 percent of total salary, like the rules in place in the U.S. Congress.

Carl Heastie in a visit to Calspan in August 2018.
Credit Avery Schneider / WBFO News

The commission also recommended a phased-in salary hike for the governor, from $179,000 to $250,000, as well as a pay increase for his top commissioners, but did not impose similar restrictions on Cuomo or the commissioners. That angered Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

“For some reason, they decided to only put these stipulations on the Legislature and not the governor,” Heastie said in December.

Cuomo said in late December that he believes lawmakers should not earn any significant amount of outside income and he has proposed bills to ban it. Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Leader Dean Skelos face prison time relating to abuses of their power to illegally gain millions in outside income.

“I don’t believe legislators should make outside income; I think that is an inherent conflict of interest,” Cuomo said. “People get into trouble all the time for that.”

Cuomo said if lawmakers don’t like the pay commission’s ruling, then they are free to “step forward and look into the camera” and vote on something new.

Heastie has not been shy about publicly backing a pay raise for legislators. He was the only lawmaker to testify in person before the pay commission last fall. He made it clear at the time that he did not want the increases to be linked to any other items, even reform proposals.

“To agree to a specific piece of legislation is not something I am comfortable with doing,” Heastie said.

In a sign of lingering tensions, Heastie skipped the governor’s inaugural ceremony on Ellis Island on New Year’s Day. His spokesman did not give any reason for the speaker not attending the event.

Senate Democrats, who take over the chamber Jan. 9, have said they support the limits on outside income proposed by the pay commission.

Democrats aren’t the only ones uneasy with the pay commission’s recommendations. Republican Senate Leader John Flanagan accused Cuomo of breaking his word to legislative leaders.

John Flanagan survived a challenge from Olean Sen. Catharine Young to lead the Senate Minority.

Flanagan said in a statement that “the committee was never charged with weighing in on issues such as outside income, the elimination of stipends or changing the Legislature from part-time to full-time — and they were never even expected to discuss them.”

Flanagan said it’s up to the Legislature to decide how it operates and he contended it would take a constitutional amendment to make the changes recommended by the commission.

The pay commission decision has been challenged in court. The conservative-leaning Government Justice Center said the salary increase is unconstitutional, because it also “radically changes the rules surrounding serving in the state Legislature.” 

If the Legislature does decide to vote to change the recommendations of the pay commission, any salary increase would be delayed until the year after the next elections, in 2021. That’s because under the state’s constitution, no sitting legislature can raise its own pay. They are only allowed to increase the salaries of future legislatures.