ALBANY - Setting up the possibility for an all-out war between the branches of government in Albany next year, appointees of Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday blocked lawmakers from getting their first pay increase since 1999.
Lawmakers failed to make a case for a pay raise beyond their annual base salaries of $79,500, said Fran Reiter, a panel member on the New York Commission on Legislative, Judicial & Executive Compensation.
Reiter, however, said that she and the other Cuomo appointees would be willing to re-convene before the end of the year if lawmakers OK an ethics deal that includes a ban on outside incomes for lawmakers. She did not suggest ethics law changes to affect the executive branch of government.
The commission had until Tuesday to release a report outlining whether, and by how much, the salaries of 213 lawmakers should be raised. The panel was created in 2015 to remove the politically tricky situation of lawmakers having to vote on their own salary levels.
“I think it’s awful that the governor thinks he is king,’’ said commission member Roman Hedges, a retired Assembly official and the appointee of Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.
Reiter dismissed the criticism, saying she has had no communication with Cuomo.
“I take enormous exception … that we are somehow upsetting the balance of power by doing the governor’s work for him and thereby creating a king. It’s insulting,’’ she said.
But nothing is dead yet.
On the surface, it appears the Cuomo appointees’ action Tuesday has killed a pay raise until at least 2019. That’s because lawmakers’ pay cannot be increased during the two-year term when they were elected, and a new session starts Jan. 1.
“So, we’re into 2019 before any of this will be considered again. Quite frankly, I think that’s a shame,’’ said commission member James Lack, a former Republican senator from Long Island and appointee of Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan.
Enter the December special session theories.
After his administration was rocked by arrests of eight people connected to Buffalo Billion and other upstate projects, Cuomo stepped up his demands that lawmakers return to Albany to enact a package of ethics bills. In more recent days, he has been trying to lure them back to Albany to pass a New York City housing program.
If Cuomo and lawmakers come together on those deals, a pay raise is still possible if enacted by December 31, before lawmakers are sworn in for another session of the Legislature in January.
In an unusual joint statement, Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan criticized the panel's demand for “legislative action in exchange for an increase in compensation.’’
“This is completely unacceptable and far exceeds the mandate of the commission, which was to evaluate the need for an increase in compensation based primarily on economic factors,’’ the two legislative leaders said. They said Cuomo’s appointees failed to “discharge their duties.”
While the sole voting member appointed to the panel by the judicial branch voted against a last-minute pay increase plan floated by the Assembly appointee, Barry Crozier, a former state appellate division judge, had harsh words for the inaction by the two Cuomo members who attended Tuesday’s meeting. He, like Heastie and Flanagan, said the commission’s existence ended as of Tuesday.
Cuomo, in an event in Rochester, ratcheted up the rhetoric against a legislative pay raise without accompanying changes to limit outside income of lawmakers.
“The public of this state is decidedly against any pay raises for the Legislature,’’ Cuomo said, adding that the public believes the Legislature has to “clean up their act and do something different.’’
Cuomo used the term “part-time” to define lawmakers’ jobs at least four times in a brief discussion with reporters on the matter. Many lawmakers bristle at that and insist they work full-time in their jobs.
“If it just remains a part-time job for $80,000, that’s a lot of money,’’ Cuomo said.
Lack, the former senator, echoed public positions expressed by lawmakers, who say they have no plans to return to Albany before the next session starts in January. With the Senate’s partisan control being decided with two still-unresolved election contests on Long Island, it would appear the Senate Republicans would have the least motivation to return for what ostensibly would be billed as a special pay raise session.
The steps by Cuomo’s appointees, including former budget director Robert Megna, mean agency commissioners also will not be getting pay hikes. They were part of the discussions for a salary increase, as were statewide officials, including Cuomo.
The 2015 pay panel law charged the commission to consider legislative salary increases based on “all appropriate factors,’’ t including the economic climate, inflation, public spending changes and the pay of legislators in other states. Lawmakers, led by Heastie in recent weeks, has said the legislation did not envision Cuomo using the pay issue as a means to get some last-minute policy goal that he was unable to broker during the last legislative session.
Reiter said, though, that lawmakers did not make the case for a pay increase in the same way judges did last year when their pay was increased. Moreover, she said the New York Legislature is the nation’s third highest in compensation.
Besides a base pay of $79,500, most lawmakers get stipends for committee or leadership assignments. Heastie and Flanagan make $41,500 on top of their base pay.
Reiter floated the notion that the commission could re-convene before the end of the year – but only if meaningful ethics proposals advanced by Cuomo are okayed by lawmakers. She called on legislators “to do the right thing” and cap outside income levels of lawmakers as part of a trade for a legislative pay increase.
But commission Chairwoman Sheila Birnbaum said the commission’s life ends as of Tuesday, unless lawmakers extended the panel’s work.
At the meeting’s end, Reiter and Megna – the third Cuomo appointee was absent from the meeting – did not vote on the sole proposal before the panel to raise the pay levels of lawmakers, agency commissioners and statewide elected officials.
The sides could not even agree whether the action taken by Reiter and Megna amounted to no formal vote or abstaining – which generally is the same thing.