The state Legislature appeared in line to get its first pay raise since 1998.
But now a lawsuit and some lawmakers' displeasure with the strings attached to the raise may jeopardize the big boost set to hit their paychecks next year.
The Government Justice Center, a conservative group based in Albany, filed a lawsuit Friday against the pay raise, saying the commission that approved it did so illegally.
Not only should have lawmakers approved the raise themselves, the commission should not have tied it to a limit on lawmakers' outside income, the group charged.
"The committee’s recommendations are unconstitutional and unlawful," the lawsuit said, "and must be enjoined because the Legislature cannot delegate its lawmaking power in this way and the committee unlawfully exceeded any authority it may have had."
The lawsuit came as some lawmakers themselves are upset over the pay commission's decision Dec. 6 to link the pay raise to a limit on their ability to earn income in the private sector.
The four-member commission, made up of current and former government comptrollers, also voted to end stipends given to lawmakers for most leadership posts.
"This committee went rogue," said Assemblyman Thomas Abinanti, D-Mount Pleasant, Westchester County. Abinanti is a lawyer in private practice who earned between $20,000 to $50,000 last year, records show.
"In addition to determining there should be an increase in the annual salary, they decided to make public policy."
Assemblyman Sean Ryan says he is in favor of a pay raise for state lawmakers calling what the panel also put in place to restrict outside income to just 15% of a legislator's salary, the right move.
The state Compensation Committee voted to increase the 213 lawmakers' base pay from the current $79,500 to $130,000 in 2021 — a 64 percent increase that would make them the highest pay Legislature in the nation.
The increase would be phased in over three years, with their pay going to $110,000 in January.
Other government officials would also get big raises. State agency commissioners would get a pay boost, while Gov. Andrew Cuomo's $179,000 salary would gradually grow to $250,000 in 2021 with lawmakers' approval.
But Assembly Democrats met at the state Capitol on Tuesday, and many of them knocked the whole plan behind closed doors.
While lawmakers approved the Compensation Committee in March, some said they felt duped when the commission decided to limit lawmakers' outside income to 15 percent of their public pay, which would be consistent with the limit in Congress.
Reaction to raise
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx, said he believes the committee’s actions infringe on the “will of voters,” who just voted in a number of lawmakers with significant amounts of outside income for a two-year term beginning in January.
With the outside income limits set to take effect in 2020, some of those lawmakers will now have to choose between their public and private jobs.
“Now some people may have to make a decision as to whether they’re going to serve again,” Heastie told reporters Wednesday. “I don’t think that was right or fair.”
Heastie said it’s likely lawmakers will act to “fix” some of the “deeply technical flaws” in the committee’s report.
“The Legislature always has the ability to fix,” he said. “That’s why democracy is great. But those are the things that we have to decide. We haven’t decided any of that.”
Sen. Thomas O'Mara, R-Big Flats, Chemung County, has been paid as much as $150,000 a year in salary from his private law firm, which has contracts with a half-dozen municipalities that include some in his Southern Tier district.
He too took exception to the commission's vote.
“The last thing New York State’s taxpayers and communities need is for the New York State Legislature to become America’s highest-paid, full-time political class," O'Mara said in a statement.
"What a disaster."
Cuomo rips complaints
Cuomo on Friday blasted lawmakers for considering undoing the committee's work and criticized the group's lawsuit as being politically motivated.
The panel's recommendations have the force of law unless lawmakers vote to overturn them by Jan. 1, according to the law setting up the committee.
Cuomo has pointed out that many of the corruption scandals in the Legislature have been tied to lawmakers' outside income, while the stipends have been knocked for years as being allocated to legislators who are loyal to their chamber's leadership.
"They don't like losing the lulus, which is a way of control of the leadership," Cuomo said Friday on "The Capitol Pressroom," a public radio show in Albany.
The salaries, Cuomo said, are "going up $50,000, right? They're going from $80,000 to $130,000. The median income in the state of New York is $60,000. I don't know how you justify that without reforms, which is basically the ban on the outside income."
Cameron Macdonald, executive director of the Government Justice Center, said the lawsuit isn't about politics: It is about the pay commission infringing on the state's constitution, which lays out that the Legislature is part time and thus can collect outside income.
In order to change the state Constitution, a vote is needed by the public.
"There was no policy set by the Legislature," MacDonald said.
"They said go out and look to see if pay could be increased, and the committee took it upon itself to redefine the role of legislator to a full-time job that deserves full-time pay. That’s not how the job is described under the constitution."