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State legislators may give themselves hefty pay raise

State lawmakers go into a one-day special session today that, officially anyway, is about considering ways to keep some sex offenders confined after their prison terms end.

But when the gathering concludes, lawmakers also may have ended the current ban on additional charter schools statewide, awarded financial perks to certain state and local government workers who retire early and helped Gov. George E. Pataki move dozens of political allies into long-term state posts and judgeships before he leaves office.

And, oh yes, legislators may just award themselves a hefty pay raise -- one of the main hallway topics among legislators returning to town Tuesday afternoon. Some lobbyists said they were hearing the legislative pay could go from $79,500 to nearly $100,000, and that's before lucrative stipends most lawmakers receive.

"I think it has come up," John McArdle, a spokesman for Republican Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, said of discussions over a pay raise.

Despite all the activity, it's also possible nothing will happen today.

Things are made more uncertain because of the diminished powers of a governor in his final weeks in office. Add to it the usual secrecy -- all talks Tuesday were behind closed doors -- and most rank-and-file lawmakers were left clueless about what could happen today.

Failing to act on one measure will have a lasting effect, though: It will put into law the recent recommendations to restructure portions of the state's health care system, which include the closing or merging of dozens of hospitals and nursing homes throughout the state.

Following a court defeat of his effort to keep certain sex offenders locked up indefinitely in separate mental health facilities, Pataki used his executive powers to order the Legislature back to session today to deal with the issue. But legislators, as they can legally do, can gavel into session, and then gavel out if they want, without considering a single bill.

If a deal does come together on the civil confinement issue, an assortment of other agreements also could be reached. They include lifting the cap on new charter schools. Opposed by unions and some schools but embraced by other educators and many parents, charter schools have reached their limit of 100 in New York. An effort to raise it to 150 died earlier this year.

The common theory is that if Pataki gets his way on the civil confinement and charter school issues, he will embrace a pay raise.

The last time he signed off on a pay hike was in 1998, when lawmakers' pay was raised to $79,500, not including stipends for more than 100 legislators; that increase came following a deal approving charter schools in the state. Aides Tuesday said Pataki wanted other things, including support from the Assembly for a couple of New York City development projects.

State law forbids lawmakers from raising their own pay in a current session, so they must act now for a hike to kick in when a new session begins in January. State lawmakers say they deserve a raise after nearly a decade without one.

Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic attorney general-elect, said he opposes a legislative pay raise. "Let's prove to the people of this state the government is functional -- and then we'll talk about the pay raise," he said, minutes after a courtesy meeting with Senate Republicans.

If legislators get a pay raise, so, too, might judges, who have been openly lobbying for one for at least a year. An early-retirement incentive bill for certain state and local government workers also is in the works.

Meanwhile, there has been talk of the Legislature overriding some vetoes issued this summer by the lame-duck Pataki. The governor vetoed an assortment of bills, including union-backed measures helping everyone from home care workers to teachers, as well as another mandate by legislators that he begin collecting taxes on cigarette and gasoline sales by Indian retailers.

Also possible is a measure, passed earlier this year in the Senate, to require employee health insurance plans to cover certain mental health treatments.

Pataki on Tuesday put forth 62 names -- many are political allies -- for various authorities and other state posts, including the judicial bench, many with terms that don't expire for nearly a decade. Among the names: Kevin Helfer, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Buffalo a year ago; he was nominated to the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority.

Meanwhile, legislators have put in a host of bills in recent days hoping for action, including a plan to benefit Medicaid recipients with prescription drug purchases and a measure to set aside $4.6 million for medical schools to increase the teaching of palliative care.

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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