In the closing days of session, something might give

Look, legislators want a pay raise. They haven’t had one in a long time. If everything were on the up and up, they might even deserve one. We all deserve a pay raise. We professors get them, the employees of the public radio stations I run get them. But people hate the idea that our legislators can vote themselves a raise so we put certain protections in place. We have established a legal/constitutional fiction that legislators cannot raise their own pay in the current session. Therefore, in the waning days of every session there is a huge push — not to raise their own pay but that of the next legislature. It’s utter nonsense since gerrymander-inspired incumbency is largely complete.

Many of these folks really do live on what they earn as legislators but many do not. Their legislative offices allow them to make oodles of money on the outside. Why not bring your legal or insurance or consultant business to a legislator who has that extra clout? Like chicken soup, it couldn’t hurt. Yes, there are some limitations but they leak like a sieve.

Enter the governor into this mix. Since he has to sign the bill that would authorize the pay raise, it’s a perfect opportunity for him to trade legislators for something political that he really wants. In the case of former governor and now presidential candidate George Pataki, the trade was easy. Pataki wanted charter schools and the legislators wanted a raise. The teachers unions did not want charters and the Assembly Democrats are usually aligned with them. Ordinarily, that would be enough to stop something cold, but the legislators were so anxious to get the pay raise that their politics fell aside and they took the deal.

This time, Governor Cuomo is really out for blood. It’s pretty simple to understand. Cuomo probably won’t run for a third term. If he is to run for president, he must meet his pledge to bring real ethical reform to Albany. So, he offers to cut a deal. They agree to real limits on outside income with absolute disclosure, he gives the green light on the pay raise. This is where things get interesting. Many of these legislators and legislative leaders make so much money on the outside that they will certainly not agree to curb their own incomes. This is particularly true for some of the top legislative leaders like Speaker Sheldon Silver and his counterpart in the Republican Senate, Dean Skelos. This, of course, will cause some in the Assembly who don’t cash in the same way, to resent the leaders’ failure to cut a deal.

For his part, Cuomo risks losing some cooperation in his legislative efforts but his voters will support him in these negotiations. Because Cuomo’s past efforts on legislative reform, including his disastrous Moreland Act Commission and his second-rate efforts at redistricting reform, have failed so miserably, he has to go for the real thing this time and the legislative leaders simply won’t have it.

If you were raking in millions of dollars, would you give it up? Nope, we do business in New York the old fashioned way and every time we get close to really cleaning things up, key legislators, often representing the wishes of their troops, get their backs up. Cuomo is a very shrewd man. He has nothing to lose. He holds the keys to the kingdom. Unlike some of his previous efforts at reform, this strikes at the heart of the matter. If he got his way he would have made a real difference in Albany the way governors Franklin Roosevelt and his cousin Teddy did. In the end, however, the deal was just too expensive for the legislature and they weren’t all that happy about it. But you know, in the closing days of this session, something might give.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 12/15/14
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