Senate GOP defends extra pay to senators in vice chair roles
ALBANY — New York Senate Republicans contend that doling out thousands of dollars in leadership stipends to state lawmakers who don’t hold the top positions is legal amid criticism from Democrats and good government groups.
Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan said Monday everything the party has done is “in full accordance with the constitution and legislative law” in response to newspaper reports revealing at least six senators were paid for chairmanships they don’t hold.
The New York Times last week reported some lawmakers had been incorrectly marked as committee chairmen in state payroll documents to receive greater stipends.
According to the Times, at least three Republicans and three members of the Independent Democratic Conference, a faction of rogue Democrats who ally with Republicans to give the Senate its majority, were awarded stipends as chairmen though they rank as vice chairs. The actual heads of the committees had not taken the stipends because they accepted higher compensations for other Republican leadership roles.
Most New York senators are paid thousands of additional dollars per year called “lulus” for various committee roles in addition to their base salaries of $79,500. Lawmakers who hold multiple leadership positions can only take one.
State law does not specifically state whether chairman stipends can be transferred to other lawmakers.
The Republican-led Senate released a memo from its top lawyer, David Lewis, on Saturday saying the additional compensation for the handful of senators falls under a state law allowing unspecified pay for senators serving in a “special capacity.” Flanagan said the higher stipends were offered to vice chairs based on seniority, levels of expertise and agreements with members.
State law does prohibit submitting false documents to a public official with the intent to defraud the government, but Lewis said listing the senators as chairmen on payroll documents was only a method to guarantee correct payment amounts, not an offering of false information. Lewis also noted that previous Senate leaders had used the tactic in payrolls and provided examples dating back to 2013.
Senate Democrats disagreed and released an opinion Monday from their counsel and finance director Shontell Smith arguing that the intent of the law is clearly that money should go to a chair rather than be distributed at the majority leader’s discretion.
Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, said the practice damages the spirit of the policy that intends the extra money goes to committee chairmen who have additional duties and staff for the positions.
“The law says the money goes to the chair. If they don’t like the law they should change it,” Horner said.
Republican Senator Tom O’Mara, vice chairman of the transportation committee, received a $15,000 chairman stipend reserved for chairman of the committee though state law does not specifically designate any additional funds for vice chairs.
O’Mara accepted the $15,000 over the $12,500 he is qualified to earn as chairman of the environmental conservation committee.
O’Mara said he was aware of the higher pay, but trusts the Republican party and its legal consult that payroll is being conducted in accordance with the law.
“When your boss so to speak comes to you and says you’re getting a raise, you know, I said thank you,” O’Mara said.