The good news, and in this case it is very good news, is the decision by a special state committee last week to approve substantial pay raises for state legislators while placing limits on their outside income and banning lulus – the stipends for committee chairmen and chairwoman that leaders use to hold sway over members.
If the Legislature does not object, a development that is not expected, this is a major step forward for the cause of good government in New York state.
State legislators’ base pay will rise over the next three years to $130,000, commensurate with a governing body that oversees a budget of $168.3 billion, one of the highest of any government in the country and larger than many countries.
Currently, the base pay for legislators is $79,500.
We hope the additional money will attract a better caliber of legislator. That wouldn’t be hard. In recent years, the arrest records of legislators seemed to rival those of drug gang members.
In return for the pay hike, the outside income of legislators will be restricted to 15 percent of their new legislative salaries effective Jan. 1, 2020.
This would have prevented Dean Skelos, the former state Senate majority leader who was convicted of political corruption, from making as much as $250,000 a year for his part-time work “of counsel” for Ruskin Moscou Faltischek in Uniondale.
Skelos was the only lawyer on the law firm’s website who didn’t list a specialty. And the law firm had a lobbying arm that has landed millions of dollars in state grants and contracts, a review of hundreds of state records shows.
Prosecutors said Skelos’ counterpart in the Assembly, former Speaker Sheldon Silver, received kickbacks from two real estate developers through a law firm for backing legislation they wanted. Silver was convicted of extortion and money laundering charges in May.
The special state committee also said leadership stipends that now range from $9,000 to $41,000 and go to most legislators should be restricted to only the top leaders, including the Assembly speaker and the Senate majority leader.
This eliminates the financial carrots Legislature leaders like Skelos and Silver used to win the hearts and minds of rank and file legislators – and undermine their independence.
The bad news in this victory for good government was the apparent opposition of Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie to tying the raises to the limits on outside income and elimination of the lulus. And the refusal of soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins to guarantee the reforms.
This is a major disappointment as Democrats are about to take control of both houses for the first time in years after a campaign in which state Senate Republicans’ opposition to good government reforms was a prominent campaign issue in races on Long Island.
The committee was created by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Legislature earlier this year when the lawmakers were reluctant to do the dirty work of raising their own salaries.
But many legislators seemed to believe that the committee – made up of state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, former state Comptroller H. Carl McCall, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer and former city Comptroller William Thompson – could only decide on a salary increase.
The voters of the state should give thanks that the committee did the right thing by surprising many by tying the salary increases to much-needed reforms sought for years by Cuomo, good-government groups and newspaper editorial pages.
The question now is whether the governor and the Legislature will pursue other ethics reforms, starting with an end to the limited liability corporation loophole that allows businesses to make virtually unlimited political contributions through shell corporations.
This is often little more than legal bribery.
Businesses, led by real estate companies, contribute millions of dollars to candidates, seeking (and getting) many times that in tax breaks and other goodies.
The law treats limited liability companies as people, allowing each to donate up to $65,100 to every statewide candidate per election cycle — far more than the $5,000 aggregate contribution limit for corporations. Firms can create multiple LLCs, effectively erasing any maximum.