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The politics of pay raises (and ethics, maybe) in Albany

ALBANY – In the historic halls of the Capitol, governors and lawmakers have long insisted that words like “trade” and “linked” are not part of their vocabulary and that each policy matter stands on its own.

Everyone, of course, knows better.

These days, because it’s December and time is of the essence, the current linkage rage is focused on two things: how lawmakers get themselves a last-minute pay raise and how Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo – with his administration facing its own corruption scandal – gets lawmakers to pass tough new ethics laws.

Time matters.  By law, lawmakers can’t grant themselves a pay increase; they can only approve a raise that takes effect for a subsequent Legislature.

But a new Legislature session commences Jan. 1. That means the current Legislature – the vast majority of whose members will be returning in 2017 – must act by Dec. 31 if there is to be a salary increase next year. Miss that date and lawmakers have to wait another two years.

Trades, and trade denials, have long made  up the mantra of Albany.

Consider:  “My members are very clear that they can’t be bought for something they don’t believe in.’’

That was 1998, and then-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver declaring lawmakers’ intent to stand tall against then-Gov. George E. Pataki's  plan to link legalization of charter schools to a pay raise for lawmakers.

Lawmakers gave in on charter schools, with some changes to the Pataki plan. In return, they got a 38 pay increase. Even Pataki got a $49,000 pay hike to $179,000 annually.

But was it a trade? “You know how the system works,’’ Pataki said at the time, according to an Associated Press account.

Jump ahead to this past Wednesday night. Earlier in the day, leaks had already been flying, courtesy of the governor’s office, that sweeping talks were underway to amend the state’s constitution with tougher ethics-driven provisions. By 8 p.m., the governor’s office put the leaks on the record, with some additions: There also were talks about extra money for housing and anti-hate crimes investigations, along with a slew of items to try to restore the public’s trust in Albany, including term limits, disclosure of outside income of local government officials, lowering campaign donation limits and – here is the linkage item – determining that the Legislature is a "full-time"  body worthy of a pay raise.

The plan drew an immediate chastisement from Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who like Silver 18 years ago, retreated from the notion that policy and pay raises can be linked.

“As I have said many, many times, we are simply not going to trade a pay raise for any piece of legislation. That is wildly inappropriate and I cannot be any clearer on this subject,’’ Heastie said in a written statement.

Still – or “that said,” as the speaker wrote next – he acknowledged there are talks underway between lawmakers and Cuomo on a number of important matters. He did not identify them.

The pay issue hasn’t helped relations between  Cuomo and Heastie and his Democratic members. Two years ago, an aide to Cuomo went to Twitter with a photograph of Cuomo lifting Heastie off the floor in a bear hug to mark the occasion when Assembly Democrats had reached a deal among themselves on what was then called an historic ethics package of bills.

Wednesday night, there were no embraces. It was a Cuomo spokesman, not Cuomo himself, who issued a lengthy statement on the administration’s view of things, including a line right up front that lawmakers are “clearly interested” in returning to Albany for a special session to get a pay raise while it is the governor who is “most interested in having the people’s business attended to.” That includes new ethics laws to address Albany's scandals, such as the corruption conviction last year of Silver, one of "three men in a room" in the 1998 legislative pay raise talks.

But Heastie questioned the veracity of the governor’s claims about what ethics-related changes are currently being discussed. He said some of the items floated Wednesday night by Cuomo’s office “have never been brought to my attention.” He called them significant items that can’t be negotiated “on a whim.’’

“I have no idea who the Governor is speaking to about these issues, but it certainly isn't me. The governor is entitled to his wish list about how he wants to see the world, but the Legislature is a co-equal branch of government and must be respected,’’ he added.

Heastie’s words had dual purposes. One was, via the media, to the public; the other was for internal reasons. Heastie, who has gone out of his way to portray his leadership as driven by the desires of his rank-and-file Assembly Democrats, has asked his colleagues to come back to Albany  on  Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Were Cuomo and Heastie involved in talks, say, about lawmakers’ term limits without those rank-and-file members having already been briefed – which they have not – that would be bad form in the world of Albany.

As for the Senate, currently led by Republicans, Majority Leader John Flanagan, a Suffolk County Republican, declined an interview request. His spokesman would only say that talks are underway. About what, he would not say.

Pay raise deju vu

If there are doubts that Albany repeats itself, consider just one of many news headlines from December of 1998: “Lawmakers headed back to Albany to possibly finalize pay raise deal.” In 1987, then-Gov. Mario Cuomo, the current governor’s late father, struck a deal for tougher ethics laws. Among the trades: a 25 percent pay raise for lawmakers.

Like now with Cuomo, Pataki in 1998 had the final say in deciding if lawmakers would get a pay hike. In the end, he got his way: an historic deal to permit 100 new charter schools in the state, something the Assembly had insisted it would not pass. Also approved, to GOP delight, was entry by New York into a multi-state dairy industry compact, a benefit for upstate farmers. And lawmakers agreed to have their pay suspended if a budget was not passed each year by the March 31 deadline.

In the briefest of debates in the dead of a Friday night, just one week before Christmas when few New Yorkers were paying attention to Albany, only one senator rose to raise an objection on the floor the evening of Dec. 18. “You gave the governor a gun and he’s been able to use it to get legislation out of the two houses that, frankly, I don’t ever think should see the light of day,’’ warned then-Sen. Franz Leichter, a Manhattan Democrat.

Over in the Assembly, former Assemblyman Bill Parment, a Jamestown-area Democrat, was one of 13 lawmakers to vote against the pay bill.

“The irony was that Pataki wanted the pay raise as much as the Legislature and he got the biggest dollar amount increase. Helped his state pension, I’m sure,’’ Parment recalled last week. He said he voted against the bill, in part, because it failed to end a “corrupting system” in which legislative leaders can reward loyalists in their houses with extra pay for committee or leadership posts.

As for tying pay hikes to stronger ethics laws and other things Cuomo wants, Parment calls it window dressing designed partly to “create political cover and in part to assert control.’’ He noted Cuomo could have forced the policies he wanted – given New York’s extraordinary gubernatorial powers in budget matters – into last spring’s state budget.

“The recent indictments of people close to Cuomo create the need for an ethics reform ‘victory’ for the governor to crow about. If he doesn’t get the victory, he can go on a statewide tour and bash the ‘corrupt’ Legislature. No one ever lost votes bashing the state Legislature,’’ Parment said.

The 1998 pay bill passed easily in both houses. But something was missing: the name of any lawmaker who would take credit for sponsoring the bill. Instead, the bill in the Senate was introduced by “Rules,’’ the same name as the Assembly sponsor. Twelve senators, including then-Sen. David Paterson, who a decade later would become governor, voted against the bill.

Timing linked to scandal

The push to do an ethics deal now – and not, say, last spring or come January when lawmakers return – can be timed to the narrowing window in which a pay raise can be approved. But it also comes amid headlines over the recent indictments of eight individuals – including longtime Cuomo friend Joseph Percoco and Buffalo businessman and major Cuomo donor Louis Ciminelli – over federal prosecutors’ allegations of pay-to-play schemes, including in the Buffalo Billion program.

Except to those who may have done private polling, it remains to be seen what the public might think of a trade of higher legislative salaries for stronger ethics laws. Critics say to do a pay raise now flouts the process approved only last year by lawmakers and Cuomo: create a commission to study the issue and decide, by Nov. 15, whether a salary hike is in order. That day came and went with no pay increase proposal, after three appointees of Cuomo to that panel made clear they were uninterested in approving an increase without the Legislature addressing new ethics measures, including making the body legally full-time and restricting the outside income of lawmakers.

Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, said the “preferable process” for a legislative pay hike would have been the commission route. “We’re very sorry to see it politicized the way it was,’’ she said.

However, Lerner said, there is a nexus between legislative pay and anti-corruption efforts. Paying lawmakers more and making them full-time might, she said, reduce the temptation of some to take a bribe or enter into questionable outside business dealings. Such a linkage makes far more sense than trading legislative pay for housing, charter schools or some other policy issue.

“We do believe the public will be better served by resolving this issue as part of an anti-corruption process,’’ Lerner said of a pay raise. “If that requires a special session to get it done, then there should be a special session and it should take up an entire anti-corruption package.’’

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