By Kenneth Lovett
Even while some suggest its unconstitutional, government reform groups praised a commission's decision to raise state lawmakers salaries for the first time in 20 years while also imposing restrictions on outside income and legislative stipends.
"The Commission has done an excellent job of balancing the public interest against the very real need to raise lawmakers' pay," said Common Cause/NY Executive Director Susan Lerner.
Lerner said tying the raises to limited outside income and eliminating most stipends lets the public know "that the people representing them are there to serve them only, and no one else."
A pay panel commission consisting of current and former state and New York City controllers created by Gov. Cuomo and the Legislature in this year's budget on Thursday pushed through a plan to raise over three years legislative salaries from the current base of $79,500 to $130,000, which will be the highest state lawmaker pay in the country.
The commission said it also had the power to require that lawmakers by 2020 restrict any outside income to the congressional model of 15% of their legislative salaries and immediately eliminate most stipends for chairing committees, serving as ranking minority members or holding most leadership posts. Some stipends, including those for serving as Assembly speaker and Senate majority leader, will remain.
While acknowledging that "questions remain regarding the specific details and legal authority of the committee," government reform group Reinvent Albany said it backs the broad principles of the commission's decision.
Reinvent New York says after 20 years, lawmakers deserve significant pay raises, but also believes the limitations on outside income and stipends are long needed reforms.
"The public deserves a government in which state officials and electeds are focused on serving the public interest, and can represent New Yorkers free of outside entanglements or pressures from leadership leveraged through stipends," the group said in a statement.
Blair Horner, of the New York Public Interest Research Group, said that the commission's decision does not go far enough in addressing the scandals that have rocked the state Capitol in recent years, including those in the governor's office.
"While we agree that the Congressional model is an appropriate to regulate legislators' outside income, advancing a reform in this area alone is inadequate," Horner said. "We note that the ethical problems that have plagued the state have not been limited to the legislative branch. Given the stunning pay-to-play scandals that have rocked government, reforms in that area must be addressed. Failure to do so highlights the inadequacy of the reform package."
Another group, Reclaim New York, blasted the the pay raise and a lack of a comprehensive ethics reform package.
"Most New Yorkers wished they received a 5% raise, let alone a 63% raise over three years," Reclaim New York said in a statement. "New Yorkers deserve better for the pretty penny they are about to pay for their government."
The pay raise commission also approved raises for the attorney general and state controller that will be phased in over three years beginning Jan. 1.
The panel also recommended increasing the governor's current $179,000 salary to $250,000 over three years, which would give New York the highest paid governor in the nation. The lieutenant governor should also get a raise, the commission said.
But while the commission could sign off on raises for the lawmakers, attorney general and controller, it said it could only recommend pay hikes for the governor and lieutenant governor. The Legislature would have to pass a joint resolution passing their salaries, the panel said.
Once the commission formally files its report on Monday, the raises for everyone but the governor and lieutenant governor will automatically go into affect on Jan. 1 unless lawmakers return to Albany by the end of the year to take formal action to block it, which his unlikely, or if there is a lawsuit filed.
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