CAPITOL -- Reports of questionable payments to some state senators are bringing new attention to a system that allows many Albany legislators to take home far more than their $79,500 annual salary.
Members of the Assembly and Senate who hold committee chairmanships or legislative leadership positions earn stipends -- often called "lulus" -- that boost their paychecks. And nearly everyone gets one, perfectly legally.
"Effectively, the way they're using it is to give all the senators raises," said state government critic Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
The $79,500 base pay of senators and Assembly members has not changed since 1999. The stipend system was written into law in the 1970s, after a court decision. The legislators are considered part-time for legal purposes, which allows them to earn outside income, though legislators commonly put in full-time hours.
The story that has stirred controversy in the Capitol since it was first reported by the New York Times last week is that some state senators -- four members of the Independent Democratic Caucus and three Republicans -- are receiving chairmanship stipends of $12,500 per year, even though they aren't the chairmen of the cited committees. In most cases, they were vice-chairmen, a position that isn't supposed to bring special compensation. The IDC members are political allies of Republicans, which gives the GOP effective control of the Senate.
"They're looking to game the system for their own enrichment, and it's not supposed to be that way," Horner said.
The chairmanship stipend money is available because legislators can only accept one stipend, and the chairs of some committees have opted to take higher stipends for another chairmanship or leadership post. The Senate Republicans' legal counsel has said the payments are legal, falling within the authority of Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan to assign.
While none of the senators representing the greater Capital Region are implicated in the scandal, nearly all of them receive some sort of stipend that boosts their base salary by thousands of dollars each.
The local representative taking home the most extra money is Sen. James L. Seward, R-Milford, who has been in the state Senate for 30 years and whose 51st Senate District includes Schoharie County. He receives a $25,000 boost as chairman of the Majority Program Development Committee. The payment brings his total annual compensation to $104,500, for what is legally considered a part-time job.
“My role as Chairman, Majority Program Development Committee is a comprehensive assignment which incorporates a number of vital responsibilities," Seward said Friday, in a prepared statement responding to questions about the stipend. "I work in close concert with the senate leadership team exploring issues of statewide concern, establishing our legislative agenda and prioritizing which issues to advance for floor consideration.
"This leadership post gives my constituents in the 51st Senate District a unique and influential voice at the Capitol and allows me to better advocate for their needs, as well as the needs of the entire state.”
Seward also noted that he chairs the Insurance Committee and has other committee roles. Under the rules, he can receive only one stipend, so he gets no extra money for the Insurance Committee post.
Horner said the theory behind the stipend system -- with which NYPIRG doesn't necessarily agree -- is that committee chairmen are giving up some of their ability to earn outside income, which all state legislators are allowed to do, since they are part-time.
But critics note that the improper solicitation of outside income has been at the root of the Legislature's biggest scandals, including the corruption convictions of former speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. It was also the central corruption allegation against former Majority Leader Joe Bruno, though the Republican from Rensselaer County was acquitted of charges that he performed legislative favors in return for "consultant" payments.
"Our view is that they should give up outside income and simply be legislators," Horner said.
Among other Capital Region senators, Sen. Kathy Marchione, R-Halfmoon, earns $12,500 for chairing the Local Government Committee, as does Sen. George Amedore, R-Rotterdam, as chairman of the Committee on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse, and co-chairman of the Heroin Task Force.
Payments go to senators in both parties. Democratic Sen. Neil D. Breslin, of Albany, received a $14,500 additional payment last year as assistant minority leader.
State Sen. James Tedisco, of Glenville, who only took office in January as the replacement for retiring state Sen. Hugh Farley, is too new to chair any committees, but he was a state assemblyman for decades and in 2016 earned an extra $16,500 for a Republican party leadership role in the Senate.
When he left, Farley was earning a $34,000 stipend annually -- bringing his total annual compensation to $113,500 -- as vice-president pro tempore of the Senate.