Pundits are agog over the possibility of state legislators voting themselves a raise in special session next month. Paid a base salary of $79,500 for sessions that typically last six months a year, our state-level solons have not had a raise since 1999. There are some who believe the legislature should offer taxpayers a refund, given the numerous members sent to jail since the last raise. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who put off just about everything important until after election, has not signaled opposition. He has indicated concern about executive staff being underpaid, which usually works its way up the food chain to elected officials. As such, he may see pay raises as a bargaining chip with legislative leaders. Cuomo, who took only 52.4 percent of the vote and saw his total erode by a whopping million votes from 2010, could probably use a few chips.
If the legislature returns in special session next month, it is more likely to take up Speaker Sheldon Silver‘s proposal that some $5 billion in bank windfalls be invested in crumbling infrastructure. That kind of money in the pipeline would trigger gleeful ribbon-cuttings all over the state and perhaps some justification for a legislative pay raise for lawmakers who voted for it.
Coincidentally, Ulster County legislators have not had a raise since ’99, being stuck at $10,000 for rank and file, $12,500 for party leaders and $19,500 for chairman. The legislature was downsized from 33 to 23 under the 2006 charter, meaning most were doing more for the same pay, but even then there wasn’t much call to pad their own pockets.
“I haven’t heard anything about it,” said legislature Chairman John Parete. “Everybody would like to make a little more, no matter what job they’re in, but I think we’re doing OK.”
While Parete senses nothing afoot, the timing could be fortuitous. County Exec Mike Hein gave department heads 2 percent raises across the board for 2015, their first in five years of executive government. Hein did not raise his $133,000 a year salary, however: a smart move politically, and perhaps an indicator on how he might react to legislative raises.
Parete said he would rather see legislative staff “professionalized [given support staff], even though they are quite extraordinary.” No such reforms were recommended in the 2015 county budget adopted last week.
Give County Comptroller Elliott Auerbach credit for at least a nice try, though failing to get the legislature to restore some $56,000 in cuts (about 9 percent) from his 2015 budget. He should have known his quest was hopeless.
The slashing authority was the Ways and Means Committee of the legislature and then the full legislature, but everybody in the room had to know that nobody messes with the executive budget without the express say-so of its author. Ergo, one has to conclude that the move to cut Auerbach’s budget was a joint effort between the executive and the legislature.
Auerbach gave it his best, meeting first with Hein to get his support for “their” budget. (Hein and Auerbach had negotiated the comptroller’s budget.) A similar appeal fell on deaf ears before the legislature with Ways and Means Chairman Rich Gerentine citing questionable expenditures on “travel, contractual and dueses [sic]” expenses. (He might have meant “doozie.”) Legislators voted to shift $30,000 from Auerbach’s budget to the contingency account for an audit of the comptroller’s operation. Showing a brave face, if not defiance, Auerbach said he welcomed the inquiry.
Auerbach tried another path, petitioning the executive to exercise his line-item veto power to override the legislature. That too was doomed, though Hein displayed some fancy footwork only a coterie of smart lawyers could provide.
The executive explained in a memo to Auerbach on Nov. 19, that owing to state mandates for early budget passage — a reference to the Cahill Sales Tax Crisis, which some suggest could be fairly called the Hein Sales Tax Crisis — he was forced to sign the budget [passed the night of Nov. 18] immediately upon receipt. Poor baby, there just wasn’t time for the line item veto Auerbach had requested, Hein advised.
“That is complete and utter BS,” fumed Kevin Cahill, eschewing use of the initials. “The final budget is due to Taxation and Finance before Dec. 1.” He said Hein could have separately vetoed the Auerbach action, which the legislature could have dealt with at its Dec. 17 meeting, and sent the rest of the budget to Albany for review.
He didn’t add that the only things Albany (and Cahill) cared about was that county takeover of Safety Net expenses and the local share of election expenses was included in the budget approved by the legislature and signed by Hein.
I asked Cahill if he had any other conditions to attach to the next two-year sales tax extension, which has to be filed with the state a year from now. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” he said.
Meanwhile, there may be a shifting of power between the few people who control local government these days. Auerbach, after vigorously backing Hein on the sales-tax dispute — which Hein says cost the county $5.4 million in revenues, Auerbach $3.9 million, but who really knows? — got his “reward” for loyalty last week. If Auerbach moves into the Cahill orbit, something Hein may suspect is evolving — the two, Auerbach and Cahill, exchanged belches over tacos at an Uptown cantina earlier this month — it could cause problems for the executive as he pursues the Democratic nomination for re-election next spring.
Enjoying a busman’s holiday during a brief vacation after the elections, I noticed reports in New York newspapers about some fairly substantial sums — between $160,000 and $300,000 — flowing into soon-to-be-former state Sen. Cecilia Tkaczyk‘s campaign coffers just prior the election day. I did not see reports of similar sums going to winning opponent Republican George Amedore‘s campaign. CeCe’s source, the stories said, was New York Mayor Bill de Blasio‘s special fundraising effort to establish a more liberal Democratic majority in the legislature next year. It failed, in large part because freshman Democrats Tkaczyk and Terry Gipson in Dutchess were defeated.