Court Rules Legislative Pay Raises Can Move Forward

The pay raise for state lawmakers set to take effect on Jan. 1 can move forward, a state Supreme Court judge ruled Friday as part of a broader suit challenging the legality of the salary bumps.

But the case challenging how the first legislative salary hike in 20 years was approved through a special compensation commission will continue on, with a hearing scheduled for Jan. 11.

“The plaintiffs are looking forward to having their injunction request fully heard and learning how the State justifies paying these raises,” said Cameron Macdonald, the executive director of the Government Justice Center, the fiscally conservative organization challenging the pay raises.

Lawmakers are due to receive a base pay hike from $79,500 to $110,000 effective the first day of 2019. Future salary hikes will boost pay to $120,000 and $130,000 for the Legislature.

The increases were also coupled with changes to how lawmakers are paid, including a cap on outside income for the Legislature and an end to stipends for leadership posts.

Lawmakers have railed against the stipulations, as well as the future phase ins being tied to the passage of budgets by April 1, the start of the state’s fiscal year. At the same time, legislative leaders have bristled at the lack of pay reforms tied to the governor and his cabinet members.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has warned lawmakers that their criticism of the pay panel could provide fodder to the lawsuit, but has insisted the legality of the pay hikes will be upheld.

A Legislative Team-Up?

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and incoming Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins met to ostensibly discuss plans for governing together next year, but the consequences of a united front of legislative Democrats could have ramifications for the state’s top elected Democrat, Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

“It going to be great to have a united and historic legislature ready to make real change for New York!” Stewart-Cousins wrote on Twitter.

Heastie, who has been openly critical of the compensation reforms attached to a legislative pay raise and Cuomo’s own support of the changes, wrote back: “Working closely together we are going to do great things for New York!”

On the surface this is rather benign looking stuff. It could also be read as a message to a constituency of one.

But a truly united Assembly and Senate — Democrats in power who are linked by both politics, ideology, common goals and aspirations — could make 2019 a complicated year for the governor.

Cuomo has sought to emphasize all the things he has in common with the newly empowered Democratic conference in the state Senate as well as Assembly Democrats, backing reforms that would make it easier to vote, campaign finance law changes, strengthened abortion laws and criminal justice measures that include a legalization of marijuana for adult use.

In sum, those are relatively easy lay-up victories. But details on big-ticket items will have to be worked out. And the rubber truly meets the road with the state budget and where $170 billion or so is spent.

Cuomo urged the Legislature, including the new members potentially champing at the bit to enact the platform they ran on, to in essence show “leadership” by notching accomplishments. At the same time, blocs of suburban or upstate lawmakers could form within the majority conferences that are more sympathetic to Cuomo’s view.

The last team up between legislative leaders was with Republican Joe Bruno and Democrat Sheldon Silver. But that was an alliance formed in large part by establishing institutional dominance of the Legislature over the governor.

Next year could chart a different Senate-Assembly alliance fueled more by ideology.

Simotas, Biaggi Plan Anti-Sexual Harassment Bills

State lawmakers announced Thursday they are backing a package of bills meant to advance efforts combating sexual harassment in New York.

The half dozen bills are sponsored by Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas, a Queens Democrat, and Bronx Democratic Sen.-elect Alessandra Biaggi.

“Countless high profile cases of misconduct and the resulting #MeToo movement have put a spotlight on the pervasive and persistent problem of sexual harassment,” Simotas said. “Fighting sexual harassment is a complex battle and my six bills tackle the scourge of confidentiality agreements, non-disclosure agreements, insufficient statutes of limitations and more.”

Taken together, the measures address a range of issues surrounding harassment and discrimination settlements, as well as employee training.

The legislation includes reforms to confidentiality agreements, requiring that a written waiver explaining the agreement’s consequences and any rights that would be surrendered as a result. Another bill would have employers notify their workers of non-disclosure or non-dispargement stipulations in a contract. A third would extend the time to file a harassment or discrimination complaint with the state’s Human Rights Division.

Another bill would mandate all state workers to complete a bystander intervention training course and another have all harassment and settlement agreements be disclosed to the state attorney general’s office.

Lawmakers also want a bill that would have any confidentiality clause in a settlement arrangement backed by separate compensation in addition to the damages.

Before the societal reckoning surrounding sexual harassment and assault, New York’s state government, including the Legislature, has contended with multiple high-profile cases involving lawmakers or prominent officials.

Biaggi in a September Democratic primary defeated Sen. Jeff Klein, who had been accused of forcibly kissing a then-staffer.

“Across this country, governments, companies, and communities have taken strong action to combat sexual harassment and abuse, and I look forward to making New York a place that makes all people feel safe in their workplaces,” Biaggi said.

The proposals received the backing of the Sexual Harassment Working Group, a panel of former state government workers who are survivors or victims of sexual harassment and assault.

“These necessary bills will move us one step closer towards a #HarassmentFreeAlbany, and the Sexual Harassment Working Group is proud to fight for survivor centric-laws with Assemblymember Simotas and Senator Elect Biaggi,” the group said in a statement.

“New York will only have the strongest laws in the nation when survivors and stakeholders share their expertise and institutions have the courage to listen and change. It’s #TimesUp on using survivors as props while shutting us out of the process.”

Sources: Nolan Departing Ed Committee Chair Post

Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan, an outspoken and passionate Queens Democrat, will be departing the Education Committee chairmanship to take the position as deputy speaker in the coming session, multiple sources at the state Capitol confirm.

Nolan will be replaced as Education Committee chair – a position she has held since 2006 and was given by former Speaker Sheldon Silver – by Assemblyman Michael Benedetto, who, like the current speaker, Carl Heastie, is a Bronx Democrat.

Nolan and Heastie memorably clashed back in 2015 when they both vied for the speakership after Silver was forced to give it up due to the fact that he was facing federal corruption charges. Nolan was the only woman in the running for the position, and she stuck it out longer than the other contenders, even as it became increasingly clear that Heastie was quickly locking up the support necessary to win the leadership fight.

In the end, however, Nolan conceded, noting the historic nature of both her candidacy and Heastie’s – he’s the first African American speaker – and said that she was gratified to “have put at least a scratch in the glass ceiling for women.”

Sources rejected the suggestion that Nolan’s departure from the Education Committee was due to some long-simmering feud between herself and Heastie, saying she had decided she had served long enough and wanted a break.

The change also comes as most committee chairs – and many leadership posts – are poised to lose the stipends they carry known in Albany parlance as “lulus” if the recommendation of the pay compensation commission goes through. But since the Education Committee position and the deputy speakership are in line to lose their lulus, it’s hard to see how Nolan might gain by this change.

Under the proposal, the Assembly Democrats would have only five posts that carry lulus: speaker, majority leader, speaker pro tempore, and the chairs of the Ways and Means and Codes committees. (That last one is the subject of much debate and speculation, as Ken Lovett reported this morning).

Also, as of last week, the commission’s proposal, which also would dramatically limit lawmakers’ ability to earn outside income, while boosting their salaries to make them the highest paid state legislators in the nation, is the subject of a lawsuit brought by the Government Justice Center.

This change in the Assembly Democrats’ line-up comes at a time when the Senate Education Committee will also be under new leadership. Incoming Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins recently announced Sen. Shelley Mayer, of Yonkers, would be taking the reigns of that committee after its current occupant, Republican Sen. Carl Marcellino, was defeated by James Gaughran in November as part of the blue wave that swept the GOP out of the majority.

Pay Raises: ‘Let New Yorkers Have A Say’

Dissatisfaction with legislative pay raises is trending among lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Hudson Valley state Sen. Sue Serino introduced a bill that would require voters to have a say in approving the pay commission’s recommendations.

“With New York politicians poised to become the highest paid in the nation, New Yorkers themselves deserve a say in the process, it’s that simple,” Serino said.

She voted against the pay commission’s creation in the 2018 state budget.

“Many public servants work tirelessly on behalf of their constituents, and their salaries should reflect that commitment and dedication, however, lawmakers’ salaries are paid for by the hardworking taxpayers of this state, and they are the ones who should decide whether a raise is warranted,” Serino said. “This bill would ensure that their voices are heard loud and clear.”

Should the commission’s recommendations be solidified into law come January 1st, Sen. Serino would have to decide whether she wants to retain her post, or give up involvement in her Dutchess County based real estate company.

The commission’s recommendations included boosting salaries for members of the state legislature, executive chamber and commissioners, also, capping outside income to 15 percent of salaries and a severely denuded stipend system.

The bill was introduced on December 14th, and is currently in the Senate Rules Committee.

Kerfuffle Over Pay Raise Continues With Lawsuit

Discontent over a report backing a legislative pay hike and compensation reforms for state lawmakers continued on Friday as a fiscally conservative-oriented group filed a lawsuit in state court seeking to block the salary increase from taking effect.

“Beyond the unconstitutional delegation of legislative power, the committee took it upon itself to expand what it was well beyond the mandate it had been given,” said Cameron Macdonald, the executive director fo the Government Justice Center, which filed the suit on behalf of four plaintiffs, including Republican Assemblyman Michael Fitzpatrick. “Everything that follows regarding legislative pay from the decision of the committee to make them full time is therefore invalid and unconstitutional.”

The suit comes less than a week after a compensation committee of former and current state and city comptrollers released a report backing phased-in pay raises for lawmakers, which several pay hikes tied to the passage of state budgets by April 1. Their pay will increase to $130,000 by 2021.

The first phase in takes effect on Jan. 1, with base pay growing from $79,500 to $110,000. Macdonald said the group was seeking an injunction from that pay raise going into effect.

The report from the pay commission, created this year by lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, also backed a cap on outside income for lawmakers and an end to additional pay for many of the lawmakers who hold leadership positions in the Assembly and state Senate.

Lawmakers can overturn the committee’s recommendation by the end of the year or the provisions have the force of law.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has criticized the stipulations, saying there are “technical flaws” in the report and noted that outside pay for the governor and his cabinet officials will not be capped or limited in anyway.

The governor’s salary would receive a phased-in increase as well to $250,000 and is subject to a resolution of the Senate and Assembly.

Lawmakers also contend the committee went beyond its original purview, which was to study and potentially recommend a pay increase.

“This committee did that and then went rogue,” said Assemblyman Tom Abinanti. “They started to make public policy.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo in a radio interview on Friday said the “rhetoric” from the Assembly is not helpful and can fan the flames of the legal challenge.

Cuomo has embraced the compensation report and its changes to lawmaker pay.

“I don’t know how you justify that without reforms, which is basically the ban on the outside income,” Cuomo said on WCNY’s The Capitol Pressroom. “Now, the Assembly has fueled the lawsuit because you have Assembly people who are saying that it’s unconstitutional or that it has gone too far.”

Advocates Push For Early Vote On Election, Campaign Finance Reforms

From the Morning Memo:

A coalition of advocacy groups on Friday will begin the rollout of an effort pushing state lawmakers to take up measures meant to overhaul how New Yorkers vote in the early days of the 2019 legislative session.

The effort will include a series of press conferences to be held next week around the state to press for bills like creating a small-donor public financing system, ending the practice of contributing unlimited funds through a web of limited liability companies as well as a suite of election reforms.

More events on the issue will be held after the holidays. All told, 135 groups are involved in the effort.

“The Governor and our elected leaders in the Legislature are on the record as strong supporters of fair elections,” said Jess Wisneski, the deputy director of Citizen Action.

“Now, New Yorkers from across the state are standing up and calling for the swift passage of fair elections reform. Our broken campaign finance laws can only be fixed by getting big money out of politics and empowering small dollar donors, and that is what fair elections would accomplish.”

Advocates have long called for creating early voting, automatic voter registration, same-day registration and no-excuse absentee voting.

The measures should be relatively easy layups for the state Senate and Assembly, both of which will have large Democratic majorities in the new year. Lawmakers are expected to approve a provision that would unify the federal and state primaries, now held in June and September, into one day.

The changes have largely been opposed or blocked by Republicans during their control of the state Senate over the last decade.

For Now, Little Movement To Address Pay Panel Changes

Broadly speaking, lawmakers aren’t happy with various strings attached to the first legislative pay raise in a generation.

But for now, there’s been little traction between the state Senate and Assembly to actually overturn the recommendations of a special compensation committee.

The pay hike, to be phased in over the next several years, was packaged with a cap on outside income and an end to stipends for most leadership posts. The compensation committee also linked phased-in raises to the passage of a budget by April 1, the start of the state’s fiscal year.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie on Wednesday said there were “technical” fixes that need to be made to the recommendations, but didn’t elaborate on how lawmakers will address this either this month or into the new year.

But sources on Thursday said there’s been little movement for a special session of the Legislature before the end of the year to block the changes. At the same time, there’s been little to no push for a legislative-backed lawsuit to overturn the compensation committee’s report.

The logistics of holding a special session this month would be difficult, if not possible, given the holiday season and the retirements approaching for multiple lawmakers as well as the hand off in power from Republicans to Democrats in the state Senate.

Nevertheless, lawmakers have raised a series of concerns with the commission’s report including:

-Linking future phased-in increases to $120,000 and $130,000 to the passage of on-time budgets gives the governor even more leverage in the budget negotiations. A last-minute amendment or change would force lawmakers to pick between a potential poison pill or forgo a pay raise.

-Pay raises for the governor aren’t coupled with similar stipulations, like a cap on outside income for him or the members of his cabinet.

-Having a cap on outside income take effect in 2020, nearly a year away, would potentially lead to a wave of retirements and special elections in the middle of a cycle.

-What sort of penalty would lawmakers face for not capping their outside income? The pay panel’s report didn’t lay any out.

Lawmakers could pass their own legislation capping outside income, but would that make the pay panel’s recommendations moot, or even invalidate the pay raises? It’s not entirely clear.

The Legislature is still working through the changes. A lot, of course, can change in Albany in the blink of an eye.

DiNapoli: Landfills Cost Local Governments Big

Long-term costs for both active and closed landfills cost local governments in New York nearly $300 million, according to a report released Thursday by Comptroller Tom DiNapoli.

“Owning a landfill can generate significant revenues, but also carries a significant long-term price tag,” said DiNapoli. “Before landfills begin to reach capacity, it is critical that local governments plan for future costs that will be paid long after the revenue stream has ended.”

Outside of New York City, local governments spent even more on garbage and refuse-related needs, totaling $917 million.

But local landfills can be especially burdensome for local governments and public authorities that operate them. Eighty local governments have closure liabilities of $298 million they must pay over a 30-year period.

Some communities have relatively small post-closure costs, like Arietta in Hamilton County, which must pay $23,000. Other communities, however, like Brookhaven in Suffolk County have $34 million in landfill liabilities.

Local governments do have assistance in the form of grants from a DEC program, but it is funded at only $250,000 a year and has a long wait list, DiNapoli’s review found.

Quiet Outreach For A Special Session

Senate Republicans have started a quiet outreach to members to determine whether they would be available to return to Albany for a special session to potentially overturn the recommendations of a compensation commission, multiple sources on Wednesday told Zack Fink and Capital Tonight.

Holding such a session before 2019 begins would be close to impossible: The lawmakers who lost their seats this year would have little incentive to return and, with the holidays approaching, scheduling around vacations and family events would be difficult.

But the mere outreach itself is a sign of the dissatisfaction over the recommendations for a pay hike that also come with significant strings attached for the Legislature.

The commission in a report this week recommended increasing legislative pay over the next several years to $130,000 from the base pay of $79,500. The phased-in hikes would be tied to budgets approved before the state’s April 1 fiscal year.

The recommendations also backed a cap on outside pay at 15 percent of lawmakers’ legislative salaries and ended the stipend system for most leadership and committee posts.

The commission’s report has the force of law unless lawmakers act before the end of the year to overturn the recommendations.

The strings attached to the pay raise have angered some lawmakers, including John Flanagan, the Republican leader in the state Senate who remains the majority leader for the remainder of the month.

Flanagan in a statement on Tuesday blasted the pay commission’s report

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who in a statement said he wanted to maintain the independence of the legislative branch, will meet with his conference on Wednesday afternoon in Albany.