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State legislators say they heard the voters and are now geared up to reform state government.

They'll start by considering a measure that could raise their own pay.

In Albany parlance, the talk in recent weeks is of "standardizing" lawmaker salaries by ending the long tradition of legislators getting extra pay for committee assignments or leadership posts. But, like other Albany code words, standardize also likely means something else: "raising" lawmakers' base salaries.

Lawmakers now earn a base pay of $79,500 a year. The stipends can add as much as $41,500 to their base.

The stipends have long been seen as a way to reward seniority and for legislative leaders to give a little something extra to those lawmakers who are loyal.

Getting rid of the stipends, known as "lulus," would theoretically reduce the near-automatic allegiance that lawmakers have to Albany's leadership.

No one is saying how much the lawmakers' base pay would change if salaries were standardized, but the speculation is that no lawmakers would see their overall pay cut. More likely, it would result in pay hikes.

The questions being asked are: How much will base pay have to rise to satisfy everyone? Will it, for instance, top the $99,000 salary for lawmakers in California -- the nation's highest? And will the top leaders, perhaps, be the only ones to keep their lulus -- and still get the extra base pay.

The day after Election Day, State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, a Rensselaer County Republican, floated the idea of paying all lawmakers the same level. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, followed a couple of days later, adding that he also would like to see some sort of regular cost-of-living wage hikes for lawmakers.

Critics, though, note the state's fiscal condition: 20 straight years of late budgets and the legislators' failure to craft a major overhaul of funding schools, despite a court order to do so.

Instead of giving themselves more money, lawmakers should be talking about cutting their pay and reducing their presence in Albany, says E.J. McMahon, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank.

"They want, under the cover of professionalism, to raise their salaries and move to a more formal, full-time session," McMahon said.

Critics say rank-and-file lawmakers are hardly needed in Albany for most of the legislative session because so little is done during the six or more months between the time a budget is proposed by the governor and the time lawmakers enact it. That system cries out for a part-time Legislature, McMahon believes. "You could pay them half as much and put a rigid limit on the session and not lose a thing," he said.

No legislator is taking credit for talk of a pay raise.

Bruno insists he is personally opposed to a salary hike for the Legislature. Yet, he is the one who first raised the notion of standardizing lawmaker salaries. He said the idea would be explored by a panel of Senate Republicans -- actually, every Senate Republican is on the panel -- looking into improving how Albany does business.

That talk about a pay raise would surface just after re-election is no surprise. It happened the same way in 1998, the last time legislators hiked their own pay.

Rumors started soon after the election that year. There were the usual denials and "nondenial denials" and then the promotion of the idea by a single legislative leader -- Silver.

Gov. George E. Pataki was described in 1998 as being "vigorously" opposed to a pay raise for legislators. By early December, legislators passed themselves a 38 percent salary increase, from $57,500 to the current $79,500. The same bill also raised Pataki's salary from $130,000 to $179,000.

The Senate returns to Albany on Thursday, but no one expects any final action on the pay issue before sometime in December. As usual in Albany, timing is everything. By law, a sitting Legislature cannot raise its own pay. The current session ends Dec. 31. So if lawmakers do something about salaries in the next six weeks, a new pay schedule can take effect when a new Legislature -- which is nearly everyone already in office -- convenes in January. Action after Jan. 1 would push off a raise until 2007.

Legislators privately say they haven't had a raise in six years and their time in Albany is increasing. But that, critics say, is their own doing because they are unable to adopt a budget on time -- and rarely do the other major policy issues get addressed before the fiscal plan is in place.

The system of lulus -- a term that originally came from "allowance in lieu of expenses" -- is not unique to New York, but a growing number of states and Congress have either altered or moved away entirely from the practice.

New York's lulus are the nation's most generous and given to the largest number of members, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The lulus range from $9,000 to the $41,500 Bruno and Silver receive.

The highest lulu for Western New York lawmakers is the $34,500 Assembly Majority Leader Paul Tokasz, D-Cheektowaga, and Assembly Minority Leader Charles Nesbitt, R-Albion, get.

As lulus provide rewards for political allies, they also can serve as a vivid example of pocketbook punishment. Until a couple of years ago, Sen. William Stachowski of Buffalo was the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, which paid him $20,500 above his base pay. But, in a power play, Stachowski backed the wrong player in 2002 for Senate minority leader. Now, his lulu is $9,500.

"That's just the system," Stachowski said of his pay cut. While he said it would be "logical" if all committee chairmen got the same pay level, Stachowski had no opinion on the concept of a standardized pay system.

But if Stachowski was unwilling to say he was punished, other lawmakers said the lulu for generations has been used to send signals to keep people in line.

"It's definitely a way to reward those who support you and punish those who don't, no doubt about it," said Assemblyman Daniel Burling, a Republican from Castile. Though he is a member of a political minority in the Assembly with no power, Burling gets a $11,000 lulu as "vice chairman of the minority conference."

To award the lulus, the Legislature has created inventive leadership titles, filled with many "assistant" and "deputy" ranks.

"Getting rid of the lulu would probably take some of the power away from leaders because they couldn't use it to influence legislators," Burling said. But, he insisted, it would be "ridiculous" to consider anything that would lead to a pay raise now.

About three dozen Assembly Democrats don't get lulus because their party's domination of the lower house is so great -- it will be 104-46 come January -- that there are not enough leadership titles to go around.

That means, much to the delight of the powerless Assembly Republicans, many of them will make $100,000 more over a 10-year period than their Democratic colleagues; it can take as long as 10 years for some Assembly Democrats to begin getting lulus.

As in 1998, rank-and-file lawmakers are trying to distance themselves from being associated with anything that might raise their pay.

Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples, who gets no lulu, said she has not had any conversations about hiking salaries. "I don't think it's timely," the Buffalo Democrat said. "We're surrounded by governments that are failing. I don't know how people can talk about increasing salaries."

If the Legislature does try to push through a pay raise disguised as a reform of the lulu system, it will have to cut a deal with Pataki. In 1998, Pataki demanded, and got, lawmakers to back the spread of charter schools and deferral of their paychecks when the state budget is late in return for the pay raise.

"What lawmakers want is not a mystery," McMahon said. "The question is what does he want?"

Thursday: Legislators' extra financial perks.


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