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Potential Special Session Discussed

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie meets with reporters Monday
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie meets with reporters Monday

State lawmakers are considering whether to have a special session this month where they would vote on, among other things, a pay raise for themselves.

Assembly Democrats are holding three days of meetings aimed in part on whether they should gavel into session later this month to vote to give themselves their first pay raise in nearly two decades.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo in recent days has publicly listed agenda items he’d like to see passed if there’s a session on salary increases, including possible term limits for legislators.

But Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle said that item is likely off the table, because most Democratic Assembly members are against it.

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“They feel it strengthens the executive branch and strengthens the role of lobbyists and entrenched staff,” Morelle said.

Cuomo has named many other items he’d like to see addressed, including strengthening the state’s hate crimes law in the wake of bias-related crimes since Donald Trump was elected president. Cuomo also wants to free up promised money to house the homeless. Morelle said those items are being considered.

But Cuomo also wants to enact reforms — including converting to a full-time Legislature and strictly limiting outside income — to answer recent corruption scandals that have resulted in prison sentences for the two former legislative leaders. The governor also wants to reform the state’s contracting process to address a scandal in his office over economic development contracts. It includes creating a new post with some of the same powers as the current state comptroller.

“I understand the Legislature wants a pay raise,” Cuomo said “I want to get some people’s work done for the people of the state.”

Morelle said it’s unlikely, though, that lawmakers would be open to restructuring state government in a “rushed” end-of-year session.

“I don’t think that’s the appropriate time,” Morelle said.

Cuomo and lawmakers had set up a pay commission that was supposed to take the politics out of salary increases. But the governor’s appointed commissioners refused to take action on a pay raise proposal, hinting they might be more amenable later if lawmakers enact reforms that Cuomo is seeking.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has said repeatedly that he won’t just “trade a pay raise for any piece of legislation.” Heastie and Cuomo held a private meeting over the weekend, along with the Senate leader. But Heastie, after a two-hour closed-door meeting with his members, said there’s a distinction between a pay-for-play type of deal and mutual agreement on approving measures that all sides agree to.

“You can bring things up in a conversation; if everybody agrees that it should happen, then it’s not a trade,” said Heastie, who said lawmakers would not be “forced” to do anything they disagree with.

“We’re not doing something that’s going to be harmful to members of the Assembly or things we don’t like in exchange for a pay raise,” Heastie said. “That’s just not what we’re going to do.”

Heastie was asked whether the Legislature would on its own approve a pay raise for the first time since 1999, whether the governor approves the idea or not. He did not completely rule it out.

“I think in this world it’s always better to have agreements,” Heastie said.

But he said lawmakers — and the governor himself, as well as his commissioners — all deserve a pay raise.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.