Last week, we mentioned that the Independent Democrats in the State Senate are earning more money thanks to their alliance giving Republicans control. Turns out, there’s a lot more to the story of the Senate lulu payments.
Catch me up:
Even though there is a 32-31 majority of Democrats in the State Senate, nine of those Democrats support the Republican leadership, giving them control of the chamber. Those nine Democrats (eight members of the Independent Democratic Conference or the IDC and Brooklyn Sen. Simcha Felder) got leadership positions as the chairs or vice-chairs of committees.
Traditionally, the chairs earn an extra bonus, called a “lulu”, supposedly recognizing the additional work. However, the State Senate paid seven vice-chairs money that would have gone to the committee chairs. (IDC Senator Tony Avella declined his lulu and Republican Pam Helming gave hers back in the wake of the controversy). Those committee chairs were already receiving lulu payments for other positions.
So what’s the latest?
It turns out that since 2015, the Senate payroll incorrectly identified the vice-chairs as chairs of their committees. The Republican leader of the Senate, John Flanagan (Long Island), ordered the Senate lulu payments to the vice-chairs; his predecessor, Dean Skelos (now in prison for taking bribes) had done the same.
In addition to that, two IDC leaders (Jeff Klein from the Bronx and David Valesky of Syracuse) received significant raises thanks to promotions that entitled them to larger lulus. However, Flanagan privately gave those raises without publicly announcing them as is the standard protocol.
Is this legal?
Republicans argue that it is legal; the IDC says that they are following the law but weren’t responsible for the Senate lulu payments.
The law allows chairs and other Senate leaders to be paid lulus, though it doesn’t mention anything about vice-chairs. Republicans say that the vice-chairs are acting “directly in connection” with the chairperson roles and so therefore it follows the law. The regular Democratic conference responded “not so fast” and Westchester Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins, leader of the Senate Democrats, called for an investigation.
Under state law, presenting false documents to a public agency is a crime. It’s a more serious felony if the goal is to defraud government. However, law enforcement agencies have had no comment, with a spokesperson for the Albany District Attorney issuing a statement: “Our office does not comment on the existence or status of pending investigations.” State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, a former Democratic State Senator who has been accused of going after Senate Republicans for partisan reasons, would need another agency to send him the case.
Why did Flanagan use this ruse for the Senate lulu payments?
The Daily News reports that Flanagan went ahead with these maneuvers as a way of appeasing his supporters. Last year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s appointees quashed a pay raise for the state legislature so that their salaries are unchanged since 1999. These lulus made up for the lack of a pay raise.
Obviously, senators wanted the higher pay but Flanagan is also in a weak position. Weeks ago, we observed Flanagan’s precarious balancing act. He’s only able to lead the Senate thanks to the unified position of Senate Republicans with the addition of Felder and the IDC. However, his upstate Republican colleagues grumble at the moderation of Flanagan and his Long Island allies. Meanwhile, the IDC is under pressure to rejoin the Democratic Party. Secret pay raises keep everyone happy and as long as the payments were kept secret, no one would pay a price for it.
How much money are we talking?
Almost all Senators take home a lulu ranging from $41,500, Flanagan’s pay, to $9,000, on top of the $79,500 legislative salary. (Only Manhattan Democrat Liz Krueger and Queens IDCer Tony Avella declined lulus while Finger Lakes Republican Pam Helming is returning hers). The biggest payment went to Sen. Jeff Klein, who earned an extra $34,000. Valesky took home the largest raise, $12,500; bringing his total salary up from $94,500 to $107,000. The IDC also gets to hire an additional 40 staffers who make a total of $2.2 million.
These figures also do not include the healthcare and retirement benefits Senators earn. Either way, however, they are making significantly more than the median income in their districts.
What’s going to happen?
This scandal is not only a black eye for Senate Republicans and the IDC but tailor-made for any opponents. The ads almost write themselves for Democrats: secret and potentially illegal raises while senators already make more than many of their constituents.
2018 was already going to be a difficult election year for Republicans, thanks to the anger President Donald Trump has stirred up. This just adds fuel to the fire.
Disclaimer: Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins is a former client. I also canvassed for Sen. Jose Peralta, an IDC member, when he first ran for Senate as a mainline Democrat.