State pay commission panelists at final meeting, Nov. 15, 2016
The final meeting of the state commission tasked with recommending pay raises for executive branch employees and state legislators was marred by disagreement and accusations, and failed to produce any results on Tuesday. It appears that the panel will be disbanded without taking any substantive action.
In a chamber at the New York City Bar Association in midtown, members of the New York State Commission on Legislative, Judicial, & Executive Compensation met on Tuesday to discuss recommendations on increasing salaries for members of the state Senate and Assembly and state agency heads and commissioners. It was the last public meeting of the commission, which was under a November 15 deadline to make its recommendations as mandated under the April 2015 statute that create it.
But the six members of the committee who were present could not find common ground and the meeting devolved into significant disagreement about the role of the commission and whether it should even take a vote on the one set of recommendations put forward. A vote was taken on whether pay should be increased by about 2 percent per year since the last increases, in 1999, and resulted in two yays and three abstentions among the five voting-eligible panelists. There was even a dispute over whether commissioners could simply not vote or if they were considered abstaining from the vote by doing so.
It was the two commissioners appointed by Governor Andrew Cuomo who refused to record any vote at all while the chair was not given a vote under the statute establishing the commission. The two appointees by legislative leaders voted in favor of raises, and the representative of the judicial branch abstained.
The executive appointees, Fran Reiter and Robert Megna, said they would not approve any raises unless they were accompanied by substantive ethics reform in Albany, particularly a severe limit on the outside income of legislators. (Megna was recently appointed by the governor after another appointee, Gary Johnson, resigned from the commission. The third executive appointee, Mitra Hormozi, was out of the country, the chair said.) Reiter said the commission should not vote on any proposal and stay open in the hopes of lawmakers convening a special session in Albany to vote through such outside income limits.
Commissioners also took issue with the fact that members of the state Legislature did not appear before the commission to make their case for a raise and to answer the commission’s questions. The legislative appointees, on the other hand, argued that the commission was charged with making an independent decision that should not be unduly politicized, expressing disappointment that the executive appointees were effectively parroting Governor Cuomo’s position to force reform.
That the vote would fail was made clear right at the start of the hearing by Reiter, who began by saying that the executive appointees would refuse to vote on any proposal increasing pay for state legislators, while generally agreeing that employees of the executive, such as agency heads, deserved much needed pay raises. She insisted that legislators should first establish a cap on outside income, essentially making their jobs full-time, and follow the lead of other elected bodies that have done so including the United States Congress and the New York City Council.
“It is unfortunate that the good legislators who work full-time, ably and honestly represent their constituents and most assuredly deserve a raise will suffer because there is refusal to right systemic wrongs,” Reiter said.
Roman Hedges, an appointee of State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, refuted Reiters argument with a thinly veiled barb aimed at the governor. “I don’t know exactly where to begin,” he said, “except to say that the reason there is a Legislature is to resist the King and that’s why it was first created, that’s why it exists and that’s what I just think I heard, ‘Do it my way or don’t do it at all.’”
Insisting that pay raises for the Legislature -- where the base annual salary has been $79,500 since 1999 -- are necessary to attract “good people” to state government, Hedges instead proposed a 2.154 percent per year cost-of-living increase across the board, even suggesting that it include the Governor and Lieutenant Governor, positions outside the commission’s jurisdiction.
“It doesn’t change the relative status of anyone...it doesn’t change the balance of power,” he said. “The balance of power is part of the question and it needs to be incorporated in whatever it is we recommend.” Hedges’ proposal, which would raise salaries for state legislators from $79,500 to roughly $114,500, was later voted on but failed to garner the necessary majority.
Reiter and Megna were visibly exasperated as Hedges spoke. Reiter sighed deeply, threw her hands up from time to time and audibly scoffed when Hedges said, “I think it’s awful that the governor wants to be King. I think it’s awful that the governor’s representatives here think that he should be King.” Reiter later hit back at Hedges’ for questioning her independence. “I reject that notion and frankly, I’m insulted by it,” she said, announcing that she had not spoken to the governor since well before being named to the panel.
Hedges found support from James Lack, who was appointed by Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan. “I think [the percentages are] certainly fair and represent only an inflationary increase brought about of course by the political impossibility of having to vote for an increase yourself,” Lack said.
The commission members also debated whether they could effectively continue their work after Tuesday, without a statutory mandate. Reiter posited that if they were to adjourn without putting any proposal to a vote, it would afford the state Legislature time to pass the reforms she was demanding before the end of the year and the commission could reconvene to move ahead with raises. But judicial appointees Barry Cozier and Chair Sheila Birnbaum both disagreed, as did Lack, saying that the commission would no longer have statutory authority and would have to be reauthorized by the state Legislature. Megna released a statement hours after the panel adjourned, saying that he believes the commission can still act before the end of the year and that he hopes the Legislature will enact outside income limits so that he and the commission will feel justified to vote through significant raises. He also said that he was open to small raises without such reform.
According to the 2015 law creating the commission, its recommendations would become law for the new year unless voted down by the Legislature. A commission is set to convene every four years according to the law, which sought to put the Legislature and Governor at some distance from ostensibly giving themselves pay raises.
The commission’s failure to make any recommendations did not sit well with legislative leaders in Albany. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Democrat, and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, a Republican, said in a joint statement that it was “unfortunate” that the governor’s appointees demanded legislation in exchange for approving pay raises. “This is completely unacceptable,” they said, “and far exceeds the mandate of the Commission, which was to evaluate the need for an increase in compensation based primarily on economic factors.”
But Governor Cuomo, who legislators say has been interfering in the commission’s work, seemed indifferent to the lack of a decision, telling reporters at an upstate event, “They have till December 31 to see if they come up with any reconciliation but the public of this state is decidedly against any pay raises for the Legislature.”
Cuomo is in favor of raises, but has argued for months that lawmakers should also cap outside income. Heastie made the argument in October that legislators deserve a pay raise and his chamber has been open to some cap on outside income. Senate Republicans have refused to consider any cap, citing the importance of a part-time Legislature and the ability for legislators to hold other jobs.
Good government groups also decried the commission’s decision, or lack thereof, but with a key difference. “No action is not an acceptable resolution,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, in a statement. “While we believe that any raise should be accompanied by a limit or ban on outside income, we also believe that the Commission must do its job and make a recommendation, just as the NYC Quadrennial Advisory Commission for the Review of Compensation Levels for Elected Officials did last year. Continued government dysfunction is not functioning for New Yorkers.”
The New York City Council recently passed pay increases for its members and citywide elected officials, while banning outside income and declaring the Council member position full-time.
Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union said, however, that the pay raises should have been recommended without any caveats. “Elected official pay decisions should not be subject to a quid-pro-quo negotiation,” he said, while reiterating support for new ethics reforms in Albany. “It appears that political interference played more of a role in this decision than the law provided for...The pay commission should have offered a modest salary increase based on the length of time lawmakers have not received a raise and increased it even more had the Legislature returned later this year to address the issue of outside compensation.”