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State deal reached on campaign financing Agreement clears the way for legislative pay raises

State leaders have agreed on new campaign finance restrictions in a deal that also increases the likelihood of a pay raise for state legislators.

Although the campaign restrictions are watered down from what Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer originally proposed, the governor gave signals that they could be sufficient enough that he could go along with a pay raise for legislators who have not received salary hikes in a decade.

"I had said that we really should not consider legislative pay until this reform agenda has moved in a very significant way -- I think we have moved the reform agenda very significantly, and that's important," the governor said Thursday.

The agreements reached Thursday also include a $200 million property tax cut for lower-income senior citizens and nearly $1 billion in financing for various capital projects around the state, including construction projects at the University at Buffalo and downtown Buffalo. No specific funding amounts were released Thursday.

The deals also included an agreement to reduce congestion and pollution in Manhattan -- although that plan was considerably diluted from the one sought by New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

A Bloomberg proposal to levy tolls on some commuters -- a sticking point in the talks -- will be taken up by a commission that will decide how to implement an overall plan, and the Legislature will ultimately have until March 31 to consider its recommendations. The agreements occurred despite the fact that Spitzer and Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno had not talked to each other since Bruno was told nearly two weeks ago that the governor referred to him as "senile."

No specific agreement was made on raising the pay of the 212-member Legislature, which got its last raise in 1999. But throughout the year, the campaign finance bill was seen as the unofficial quid pro quo for a pay hike.

Legislators earn a base pay of $79,500, but many make $10,000 or more in stipends for committee posts and legislative leaders get "Lulus" of $30,000.

The prospect of a legislative pay raise was immediately condemned as "outrageous and insulting" by the Civil Service Employees Association, which is in stalled contract talks with the state.

The State Senate already has approved the creation of a commission to recommend automatic cost-of-living salary hikes for judges, executive branch officials and state lawmakers. To take effect, it needs the Assembly's approval and Spitzer's signature. Funding for the judge's pay hike is already in the budget. A provision in the state constitution would ban any legislative hike from taking effect until 2009.

Also not taking effect until 2009 are the campaign finance changes that the sides agreed to Thursday -- leaving the current high limits and loose restrictions in place for next year's legislative elections.
Spitzer originally proposed a ban on donations by limited liability corporations, which are often set up by wealthy individuals to sidestep limits on donations. The Senate balked at that, agreeing instead to ban donations from "sham" LLCs that have no assets.

The Senate also beat back Spitzer's plan to end the split, partisan control -- two Democrats and two Republicans -- at the state Board of Elections. The board has been criticized for lax enforcement of campaign violations because of partisan gridlock that ends up serving the needs of both parties. Spitzer had wanted to add a fifth member.

And new donation limits don't go as far as Spitzer sought. The deal reduces the current maximum $55,900 contribution to statewide candidates to $25,000. Maximum donations for Senate candidates are cut to $11,500 from $15,500, and donations to Assembly candidates to $4,600 from $7,600.

It bans donations from corporate subsidiaries and, in what could raise constitutional concerns, from lobbyists. It imposes caps, starting at $300,000 in 2009, on soft money donations to party housekeeping accounts and lowers from $94,200 to $50,000 the aggregate annual cap on donations to party accounts.

Spitzer said four donors make up 20 percent of soft money accounts to the Democratic and Republican parties in New York. Aides later said the Democratic Party gets 20 percent of its money from two teachers unions, trial lawyers and a health care union, while the Republicans' top four donors are a teachers union, trial lawyers, the health union and Bloomberg, the billionaire New York mayor who recently left the GOP.

The campaign finance deal also includes hikes in civil penalties, more money for enforcement activities at the elections board and disclosure when donors "bundle" donations from a group of like-minded contributors for more impact.

"This is a good beginning," said Barbara Bartolletti, a lobbyist with the League of Women Voters. She acknowledged the weaker provisions, but added, "There is more good than bad."
The sides did not close several important issues that have been on the table for months.

They made no deal on making it easier for more efficient power plants to locate in the state to reduce energy costs, or on expanding the state's DNA database, or on cleaning up old brownfields in mostly urban areas, or making food offerings in schools more nutritious.

It is uncertain when lawmakers will return this summer.


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