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Panel considers first raise for state lawmakers in almost 20 years

ALBANY – A pay compensation panel selected by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and lawmakers quietly held its first public meeting Tuesday in what will be a breakneck process that’s expected to result in the first salary hike for members of the Senate and Assembly since 1999.

The four-member panel, all longtime government insiders, made no decisions during the 20 minutes they met in public except to announce two hearings – one in Albany, one in New York City – later this month.

Watchdog groups expect lawmakers to get a pay raise in January. The only question is: How much?

“I think the train is leaving the station. I think today the engine is tooting its horn and everyone is getting on board for a pay raise," Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, said of the Tuesday meeting by what’s called the New York State Compensation Committee.

The pay hikes being considered would go beyond lawmakers to include state agency commissioners as well as statewide-elected officials, including one of the members of the pay panel.

Traditionally, given the constitutional prohibition against lawmakers raising their own salaries during a current session, the Legislature would scurry back to Albany after November elections to give themselves a pay increase that would kick in soon after with the start of a new legislative session every two years.

But that has not happened since 1999 and in recent years a commission was created to take the political pain out of the effort for the Legislature. The commission’s decision, due by Dec. 10, is binding. The only way it could change is if lawmakers were to return to Albany before Dec. 31, assuming the commission approves a pay hike, and veto the panel’s work.

“That would be a Christmas miracle," Horner said when asked the chances lawmakers would return to block a pay increase.

At $179,500, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is the third-highest paid governor in the United States, according to a study released this week by NYPIRG. Even with a two-decade pause in salary adjustments, the state Legislature also is one of the best compensated.

Members of the Senate and Assembly get a base pay of $79,500. In addition, stipends of between $9,000 and $41,500 are given each year for positions with leadership titles or committee chairmanships. In the 63-member Senate, all senators get a stipend, or what are known as “lulus” in Albany; in the 150-member Assembly, all GOP members in their party’s small conference get a stipend and two-thirds of the Democrats received a lulu.

In 2016, the Legislature appeared destined for a pay raise – to a base of $110,000 – but the commission’s members appointed by Cuomo and the state’s judiciary blocked it at the last moment, saying the timing wasn’t right given major corruption cases that had recently taken place. Cuomo had insisted on linking a pay raise to certain ethics-related changes, such as limits on outside incomes of lawmakers.

Albany’s corruption problems have hardly gone away, given the trials this year of former Cuomo insiders involved in several schemes, including a bid-rigging deal over the Buffalo Billion solar plant at RiverBend.

If there is any linkage of a pay hike to new ethics rules, it is not publicly in the works to be done before a pay increase would take effect in January. Given the partisan numerical breakdown, the Senate took on no major work before ending session in June because of a battle between the GOP and Democrats; that’s only worsened after last week’s elections in which the Democrats decidedly flipped the Senate’s control to their party as of January.

The pay panel that began its work Tuesday is made up of: state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, who would be in line for a pay raise himself; State University of New York Board of Trustees Chairman H. Carl McCall; City University of New York board Chairman William Thompson; and New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer.

During a brief public comment period of the meeting on Tuesday, a woman asked why the panel appeared to be rushing ahead with a decision. “The rush is it has to be done by the 10th of December," McCall said of the legal deadline for the commission to act if there is to be a pay raise come January.

The panel revealed a new website where the public can send comments on the issue.

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