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Group sues to halt big pay hikes for state lawmakers

ALBANY – Pay raise battles continue to consume the State Capitol, with lawmakers and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo disagreeing over the constitutionality of the work by a panel that this week recommended a 64 percent pay hike for lawmakers and a near $70,000 salary increase for the governor.

On Friday, a group called the Government Justice Center, announced it was filing a lawsuit to try to block the pay panel’s report issued earlier this week that included the binding pay raise recommendations for 213 legislators along with new restrictions on legislators' outside income and stipend payments.

“The basis for the lawsuit is that the Legislature unconstitutionally delegated its powers to this compensation committee to establish salaries," said Cameron Macdonald, executive director of the not-for-profit group that filed the suit in State Supreme Court in Albany.

Macdonald said the commission went beyond the scope of its mandate in determining that the Legislature should be full-time employees.

"That’s a policy decision for the Legislature to make,’’ Macdonald said.

Lawmakers meeting in private this week in Albany have bitterly complained about the pay panel – composed of four longtime Democratic Party insiders, including State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli – and what legislators say was a detour far beyond the scope of the commission’s legal authority.

Privately, Democratic lawmakers have lashed out at members of the pay panel, as well as Cuomo, who they believe influenced the outcome. They noted future salary hikes for lawmakers alone were linked to outside income restrictions and certain "performance” based conditions.

Cuomo would see a hike from $179,000 to $250,000. The pay panel's recommendations are binding, except for the proposed salary levels of the governor and Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul; pay rates for those two offices need separate legislative approval.

Lawmakers like the pay raise – their first since 1999 – which will take their base pay from $79,500 to $110,000 in two weeks, rising to $130,000 on Jan. 1, 2021.

Big salary boost poses dilemma for some state lawmakers

The increases are contingent upon the Legislature agreeing with Cuomo to adopt a budget by the fiscal year start of April 1 – giving the governor even more sway than he already has over the Legislature on fiscal decision-making.

The pay panel’s report also sharply curtails annual stipends – used by Senate and Assembly leaders to, partly, reward loyalty – given to leaders of committees and holders of leadership titles. The stipends are worth between $9,000 and $41,000 annually.

Additionally, new restrictions on outside incomes for lawmakers – not for the governor – are being put in place in one year that will force a number of legislators to either drop their outside jobs or leave their legislative position.

Cuomo said on a radio interview Friday that the pay raise and other changes are fair. But he raised concerns about the “rhetoric” coming from some Assembly Democrats who have publicly called the pay panel’s work unconstitutional.

“I believe the law is going to be upheld, but I believe the rhetoric has made the lawsuit more problematic,’’ Cuomo said. He dismissed the lawsuit as coming from “ultra-conservative” groups with “an agenda.’’ He did not specifically define their agenda.

The Government Justice Center was formed last year and is based in Albany; its board includes individuals associated with the Manhattan Institute, the Empire Center for Public Policy, Reclaim New York and Robert S. Smith, a former judge who was appointed to the state’s top court by Republican Gov. George Pataki in 2003.

“I do believe the lawsuit will be moot. I do believe the commission acted within their authority,’’ Cuomo said.

Michael Whyland, a spokesman for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, took to Twitter shortly after Cuomo made his comments. "It's not rhetoric to question the legal authority of the committee! The Assembly has never said it is opposed to reforms. Hope the Governor applauds just as loudly when proposals to reform executive agencies are being considered in light of what has happened over the last two years,'' he said in a clear reference to corruption problems that have hit the Cuomo administration.

Heastie, a Democrat like Cuomo, this week blasted the pay panel’s work. “They were only supposed to look at salaries,’’ Heastie said this week at the Capitol after emerging from an hours-long private meeting with Assembly Democrats.

Macdonald, the head of the group seeking to block the salary hikes from kicking in on Jan. 1, declined to identify who funds his Government Justice Center.

Macdonald said voters in 1947 changed the state constitution to permit lawmakers to vote on their own salary levels. The pay panel idea was created several years ago as a way to help lawmakers and the governor to not have to directly take the politically tricky path of boosting their own pay. The pay panel’s ideas become law on Jan. 1 unless lawmakers return to Albany before then to reject its report, a prospect fraught with hurdles.

Macdonald said voters, via the constitutional change, made clear that they want a direct vote by legislators on salary matters. “They can do whatever they want and then justify it to the voters,’’ he said.

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