Sometime after November’s election, New York lawmakers are expected to convene in a lame-duck session that could include more major actions than the next two years of regular sessions combined, including a push to raise their own salaries.
But you won’t hear the couple hundred incumbents talk about it while they campaign.
That’s because in the New York Legislature, the biggest votes are rarely won or lost on merit. Instead, horse trading leads to deals.
“Whenever you have an agreement on legislation … it tends to have a certain transactional quality, right?” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said during a news conference last week. “An agreement, by definition, is normally the exchange of benefits and burdens.”
In addition, candidates have cover from talking about the issues because legislative leaders say the session isn’t on the calendar. So the word among incumbents on the campaign trail is, “What special session?”
Such a session has become almost routine, and one is likely to convene sometime in November or December. Among issues that Cuomo and several legislators say are priorities are pay raises for lawmakers and top commissioners in the governor’s administration. They could be swapped for an increase in the minimum wage to $8.50 an hour from $7.25, which is a top concern of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.
The minimum wage “needs to be a real issue in the state Senate elections,” said Stuart Appelbaum of the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union. He said voters need to ask candidates: “What are you going to do for the overwhelming number of people who need it to make ends meet?”
Other legislation could include a curbing of New York City’s stop-and-frisk policing and approval of a deal in which about 300,000 New York City residents will get property tax rebates for their condominiums, each sought by Cuomo.
But voters aren’t hearing about those major issues.
“We haven’t had an intelligent conversation about it,” Cuomo said last week. “It’s going to be up to the Legislature.”
On the minimum wage and pay raises, a Siena College poll shows a political trade-off: Three-quarters of New Yorkers oppose a pay raise for lawmakers while three-quarters support a higher minimum wage.
Pay raises for New York lawmakers are most often done in a lame-duck session in an election year because legislators can’t directly raise their own salaries, but they can raise salaries before the next legislature officially takes office.
Senate and Assembly leaders have made clear a pay raise is a priority, although few outside of Silver have dared to make the argument publicly. One, who is retiring this year and so faced no political fallout, did.
“I’ll be back in December to vote on your pay raise!” shouted Assemblyman Dan Burling in the closing days of the session in June from the chamber floor, to raucous applause.
And history shows the raises could be Cuomo’s best leverage for future negotiations. In late 1998, Republican Gov. George Pataki agreed to increase lawmakers’ salaries. In exchange, he gained huge wins: charter schools and a weapon for budget negotiations in which legislators’ pay was withheld when a budget was late.
The deal hinges on some critical elements, including whether Republicans stay in charge of the Senate. Another unknown is whether the Legislature would risk voter wrath to approve a pay raise despite a new burst of scandals, including a secret $103,000 settlement to end sexual harassment against an assemblyman and an indictment against a senator.
Cuomo also seeks campaign finance reform, perhaps the most glaring unchecked item from his 2010 campaign priorities.
The state’s ethics board is also due for tweaking, as Cuomo puts it. It has drawn criticism for its penchant for privacy, some press leaks, and for a perceived lack of independence from Cuomo that prompted one member to resign.
Republican senators also are seeking tax breaks for businesses in a jobs program, which could affect Democrats’ spending priorities in the 2013-14 budget.
Gormley can be reached at www.twitter.com/APgormley.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.