Lawmakers To Keep Their Wage Increases

A lawsuit seeking to block pay raises for state legislators has resulted in lawmakers keeping their raises and keeping their outside income as well.

The decision by Judge Christina Ryba was released Friday in State Supreme Court in Albany. Four taxpayers assisted by the Government Justice Center filed the lawsuit in December after a legislative compensation committee created by Gov. Andrew Cuomo as part of the 2018 state budget recommended pay increases for legislators while also restricting state legislators’ outside income to 15 percent of their legislative salary starting in 2020. Legislators had until Jan. 1 to reject or modify the commission’s recommendations, but legislators refused to call a special session to act on the recommendation and thereby allowed it to become law.

“Earlier today the Supreme Court in Albany issued a decision declaring null and void the prohibitions and limitations on outside income for lawmakers recommended by a hand-picked committee last December,” Government Justice Center officials said in a statement posted on the organization’s website. “The plaintiffs continue to disagree that the legislature could hand over its law making power to an unaccountable committee and will consider their appeal options going forward. The Government Justice Center remains dedicated to protecting the rights of New Yorkers in the face of improper action by state or local governments and encourages the legislature to keep this in consideration as they move toward the end of session.”

The base pay for senators and assembly members jumped from $79,500 to $110,000 in 2019 and will increase to $120,000 in 2020 and $130,000 in 2021. Cuomo’s salary increased to $200,000 in 2019, $225,000 in 2020 and $250,000 in 2021.

Ryba ruled the pay panel exceeded its authority by coupling salary increases to the limitations on outside income, but upheld the pay raises. The decision ruled against the lawsuit’s argument that state Legislature couldn’t delegate its authority of lawmakers’ pay to an un-elected commission.

“However, the committee’s recommendations that do not relate to prohibited activities and limitations on outside earned income were within its scope authority,” Ryba wrote. “Furthermore, the court finds no merit to plaintiffs’ argument that it is impermissible for the committee to make any determination or recommendation while relying on the idea that the Legislature should be compensated for full-time service.”

OUTSIDE INCOME ALLOWED

Ryba wrote that the court finds the pay panel did act outside its authority by restricting the amount of outside income a state legislator can earn because the legislation creating the panel did not include tasking the committee with making recommendations related to ethical rules.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo had supported the restrictions on outside income, arguing that the private jobs had been one reason for corruption scandals involving such legislative leadership as former Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate majority leader Dean Skelos. Current Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx, filed a brief in the case asking that the court’s decision on raises be severed from the decision on outside income. Ryba agreed with that contention, in part because Heastie’s intervention, she said, signaled that the legislature intended the actions to be separate.

It is unclear, though, if the decision allows only the pay raises for 2019. In one part of the decision, Ryba rules the pay committee acted within its scope to grant the pay raises, but in the discussion of Heastie’s request to sever the raises from outside income suggests the pay increases for 2020 and 2021 won’t take effect, meaning either the pay committee or the state Legislature could have to take action for the next two phases of the pay increase to take effect.

OPEN MEETINGS LAW VIOLATION ALLEGED

In addition to claims that the commission acted outside of its jurisdiction, the Government Justice Center alleged Open Meetings Law violations, including not providing the audio-visual recording of the pay panel’s Nov. 28 meeting; deciding to retain counsel and meeting with that counsel outside of a public meeting; starting a meeting late, which the center alleges was “presumably” because the pay panel had met in an executive session; the final report was not on the table to be voted on during the pay panel’s fourth and final public meeting; and several details found in the final report were not fully discussed and voted on during the public meetings.

Courts are empowered to nullify actions taken in violation of the Open Meetings Law. Ryba ruled that even if the technical violations are true, the court would still find the plaintiffs failed to demonstrate good cause warranting the court to strike down the pay panel’s recommendations.

COMMENTS