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Talks down to the wire on a special session

Matt Ryan New York Now

Talks between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders are still continuing over whether to hold a special session before the holidays — and the clock is ticking.

State lawmakers are still deliberating over whether to hold a special session in December that could, in part, give themselves a pay raise. The salary increase also could extend to Cuomo and his top commissioners.

It would be the first pay hike granted in 17 years for lawmakers, who make a base salary of $79,500.

Cuomo, sensing an opportunity for leverage over lawmakers, has a long list of reforms and other initiatives he’d like to see adopted during a special session that would include consideration of a pay raise. The list has been growing in recent weeks and includes funding to help ease the homeless crisis.

The governor also wants to expand the state’s hate crimes laws to offer more protection to New Yorkers who are victims in the increased number of bias-related incidents since the election of Donald Trump as president.

“There are certainly critical issues,” Cuomo said.

Cuomo is seeking a number of reforms to address scandals that have led to prison terms for the two former legislative leaders who used their connections to illegally gain outside income. He also wants to change how economic development contracts are awarded in his own administration, after a scandal that’s led to several indictments of his former associates.

“Reform has to be addressed,” the governor said.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie met with his Democratic Assembly members for three days at the Capitol in early December, but did not come to resolution with the governor on a session.

Heastie and other lawmakers are wary of a quid pro quo deal that might make it look like legislators are voting for certain bills in order to receive direct monetary gain in the form of a raise.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who convicted the two former legislative leaders and indicted a number of Cuomo’s associates, said he’s been asked by President-elect Trump to continue in his job in the new administration, and that he’s accepted the offer.

Heastie made the distinction between a direct trade and mutual agreement on important, timely issues.

“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 in exchange for a pay raise.

Heastie said addressing the increase in hate crimes and freeing up more money for the homeless are two issues he believes can’t wait until 2017.

The speaker has maintained for months that his members deserve a pay raise. Cuomo agrees — with a caveat. He said despite numerous scandals in recent years, legislators also have a number of achievements, including six on-time budgets in a row. But he said lawmakers will have to act to earn it.

“I understand their point,” Cuomo said. “But I think the people of the state want to see performance for the raise.”

Another obstacle to a special session could be disarray in the state Senate. Democrats currently are involved in an internecine fight over leadership of the chamber.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.