Disclosure Forms Reignite Debate Over Part-Time Legislature

10:31 PM, Jul 6, 2013   |    comments
New York State Capitol Building
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By Jon Campbell

Albany Bureau

ALBANY - The National Conference of State Legislatures, which tracks legislative bodies across the country, says New York lawmakers do enough work to be considered full time.

New York state law, however, says otherwise.

A new round of financial disclosure forms released last week -- some of which showing New York legislators with lucrative outside jobs that pull in six figures -- has re-sparked a decades-long debate over whether state lawmakers should be constitutionally recognized as full time and if they should be able to hold other jobs.

"Under our system, we have part-time legislators. That is the system we have - citizen legislators," Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday. "They work as legislators part time, and they have businesses, law practices, et cetera -- part time. That's the design of the system by the constitution."

Changing the system would have a significant effect on New York's legislative branch.

While most lawmakers say they work -- or exceed -- full-time hours while serving constituents, maintaining their part-time status as lawmakers allows them to obtain outside employment. About two-thirds of the 213-member Legislature report some type of extra income on top of their base legislative salary of $79,500 and added stipends.

Reform advocates say that leads to a potential for conflict. Several good-government groups have long lobbied for a full-time Legislature, eliminating their ability to hold other jobs while increasing lawmakers' pay to compensate for the change.

Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, D-Kingston, Ulster County, said the work that comes along with the job is "not just full time, but more than full time."

"My personal opinion is, yes, the Legislature should be full time," Cahill said. "Certainly the work justifies it. It would avoid the potentials for conflict."

The lawmakers' 2012 financial disclosure forms, which were expanded under a new ethics law that required them to publicly reveal their outside income level for the first time, showed a broad range of compensation. The forms were released Wednesday.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, reported a salary of between $350,000 and $450,000 in 2012 from Weitz & Luxenberg, the Manhattan-based personal injury firm that has long employed him. Senate Co-Leader Dean Skelos, R-Nassau County, reported between $150,000 and $250,000 from a Long Island law firm, while fellow Co-Leader Jeff Klein, D-Bronx, earned between $57,001 and $106,000 as a partner in his own firm and as a lecturer at Mercy College.

Their counterparts in the minority legislative conferences, however, both showed no outside income, though Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers, reported receiving a legal settlement of as much as $350,000.

"I haven't given it much thought because I don't have any outside income," said Assembly Republican Leader Brian Kolb, R-Canandaigua, Ontario County. "I've done some consulting on the side over the years, but I've just found to really immerse yourself in everything (as a lawmaker), it's a full-time job."

The debate over the merits of full- or part-time legislative bodies has long been waged among academics, with some arguing the perspectives given by citizen legislators in different lines of work outweigh the potential conflicts.

In New York, the debate goes back to at least the late 1980s, when then-Gov. Mario Cuomo -- the current governor's father -- at one point had called for a study of the benefits and drawbacks of changing the system.

In April, Andrew Cuomo publicly weighed the issues associated with a change after a New York City news conference, calling it one of the "big questions" following a string of bribery arrests that shook the Legislature earlier this year.

"The number of potential conflicts goes way up," Cuomo said of a part-time Legislature.

"Now, a full-time Legislature is also problematic," he continued. "We're supposed to be a citizen Legislature. You have to pay (lawmakers) more. Some people think if they're actually in Albany more, they'll do more harm."

A look at legislative bodies in other states shows no clear consensus. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 10 states -- including New York -- have a system that more closely resembles a full-time job, based on issues like the length of the legislative session, compensation and the size of a lawmaker's staff.

Seventeen states are closer to a part-time model, while the remaining 23 states maintaining something of a hybrid.

The compensation issue, however, has proven to be a sticking point in New York, where a $79,500 salary goes much farther in upstate counties than in New York City and its suburbs.

Assemblyman Thomas Abinanti, D-Greenburgh, Westchester County, says he has to maintain a few legal clients on the side to supplement his income. Abinanti lives in one of the more wealthy districts in the state.

While $150,000 may get you a house in some portions of upstate, Abinanti said, it would fetch a one-bedroom apartment in parts of New York City's suburbs. He earned between $5,000 and $20,000 in additional income last year, according to his disclosure form.

"Being an assemblyman is a full-time job but does not pay a full-time salary," Abinanti said. "So you've got to attempt to make a little money on the outside. I don't make a lot, but it does give me an opportunity to have another office and get a little bit. "

Gannett Albany

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