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Editorial: No campaign finance reform, no raise for state lawmakers

As Dec. 10 approaches and the state’s pay compensation panel closes in on the decision about giving Albany lawmakers a pay raise, it must be said again: no increase without campaign-finance reform. And that is just one of the conditions an overtaxed public must demand.

The panel, created by the governor and State Legislature, is considering the pay hike, which would be the first for members of the Senate and Assembly since 1999.

Cuomo makes $179,500 and is the third-highest paid governor in the United States, according to a study released by the New York Public Interest Research Group.

Members of the Senate and Assembly make a base pay of $79,500 and receive stipends of between $9,000 and $41,500. The stipends are for positions with leadership titles or committee chairmanships. In the 63-member Senate, all senators get stipends, or “lulus.” In the 150-member Assembly, all Republican members in their party’s small conference get a stipend as do two-thirds of the Democrats.

Yes, it has been almost 20 years since lawmakers had a pay raise but those years have been filled with lawbreaking lawmakers. These include top legislators such as former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and former Sen. Pedro Espada Jr., a onetime Senate majority leader, along with a legion of others. The executive branch has also had its issues.

NYPIRG makes a credible case for a few public “corruption-busting” measures:

  • Independent oversight of agency contracting and better disclosures
  • Independent oversight of ethics administration and enforcement
  • Restricting outside income for lawmakers and members of the executive branch, which this page believes should include more explanation and perhaps exceptions
  • Restricting campaign contributions from those seeking or receiving contracts
  • More disclosures for those who “bundle” campaign contributions
  • New changes to the state’s campaign financing system, such as limits on LLCs and a voluntary system of public financing

At least, some of those measures should be undertaken. A couple of years ago, the governor was open to a pay raise but also wanted lawmakers to agree to ethics reforms. At the time, the governor’s appointees to the New York Commission on Legislative, Judicial & Executive Compensation rightly blocked raises while suggesting they would be willing to reconsider if lawmakers agreed to ban all outside income. However, defining “outside income” is not easy. Is it employment, investment or pension?

As for the “LLC loophole” that allows wealthy donors to evade limits on political donations, the practice must end. The now infamous decision by the state Board of Elections which ruled in 1996 that limited liability companies are not corporations, but “individuals,” should be reversed.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie made a convincing case about the need for a pay increase before the compensation panel, citing the long absence of raises, the effect of inflation and the high cost of living for downstate members. But neither he nor incoming Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins has been willing to pledge any kind of reform. It’s hard to come to any conclusion but the obvious one: They like the rules loose and want more public money, anyway. That’s a deal breaker in the one of the nation’s most politically corrupt states.

The commission needs to hang tough and insist on credible, effective reforms before agreeing to any increase in pay. The commission’s members are State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, who would benefit from any raise, chairman of the board of the State University of New York H. Carl McCall, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer; and former New York City Comptroller William Thompson.

A raise after 20 years is not unreasonable but it needs to come with real ethics reform. That’s not negotiable.

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