For Group of Breakaway Democrats in New York, It Pays to Be No. 2

For Group of Breakaway Democrats in New York, It Pays to Be No. 2

Stipends are specifically earmarked for Senate committee chairmen. But in three recent instances, the payment for the committee leader has been paid to the second-in-command, giving the I.D.C. members thousands of dollars in payments not explicitly outlined in state law. And in each case, state payroll records show that the I.D.C. members were paid as the leaders of their committees.

Legislative Law 5-a lays out in specific dollar amounts what lawmakers receive as allowances, and nothing there says specifically that committee chairmen can funnel their stipends to other lawmakers; likewise, the law does not expressly prohibit it.

There are no payments laid out in the law for Senate committee vice-chairmen. But the I.D.C. argues that such payments are justified by the law’s preamble, which says that lawmakers serving in a special capacity in the Senate — or “directly connected therewith” — shall be paid an allowance, and then lays out a specific schedule of payments with no mention of vice-chairmen.

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Senators Marisol Alcantara, left, and Diane J. Savino, center, both members of the I.D.C., with Candice Giove, a spokeswoman for the group. Credit Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times

“Those three words are the legal authority for the chairman or anyone connected therewith to receive the allowance set in the schedule,” Candice Giove, a spokeswoman for the I.D.C., said.

Ms. Giove added that the I.D.C. believed that case law backed its argument, and that the law itself “supports allowances for vice-chairs who are ‘directly connected therewith’ to committees in our house.” Senate Republicans similarly maintain that everything was done in accordance with the law.

But good-government watchdogs said that such a justification circumvented the intention of the law, which was meant to reward chairmen for extra work.

“They’re doing an end run around the system,” said Blair Horner, the executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group. “They’re supposed to be getting extra compensation for additional work. And if that’s not what’s happening, they’re completely undermining that argument.”

The arrangement appears to have been signed off on by Senate Republicans: The Senate leadership is responsible for providing and entering the information on chairmanships into the state payroll system, according to the state comptroller’s office.

Under state law, the leaders and ranking members of most of the Senate’s nearly three dozen committees are given extra payments — commonly known as “lulus” — ranging from $9,000 to $34,000 a year. By law, legislators can receive only one such stipend, and lawmakers typically take the greater stipend if they hold multiple leadership positions.

The money is an important perk. Lawmakers receive a base salary of $79,500 a year. The Legislature has not had a pay raise since 1999; their attempts to be paid more have been bogged down in disputes over banning outside income and other ethics-related changes.

Two Republican senators — Andrew J. Lanza of Staten Island and Joseph A. Griffo of Rome — serve as the chairmen of the Codes and Energy and Telecommunications committees. They also serve in higher-paying Senate leadership positions for which they are paid. And earlier this year, their committee chairmanship stipends were instead paid to Ms. Savino and Mr. Peralta, according to records from the state comptroller’s office.

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In 2015 and 2016, Senator David J. Valesky of Syracuse received $15,000 a year as vice-chairman of the Health Committee, taking the stipend that was prescribed for the chairman, Senator Kemp Hannon, a Republican from Long Island. Credit Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times

Ms. Savino holds the vice-chairwoman title for the Codes Committee and received an $18,000 stipend; Mr. Peralta serves as vice-chairman for the Energy and Telecommunications Committee and received $12,500.

Their arrangements were predated by one that benefited Senator David J. Valesky of Syracuse, another member of the I.D.C. In 2015 and 2016, he received $15,000 per year as vice-chairman of the Health Committee, taking the stipend that was prescribed for the chairman, Senator Kemp Hannon, a Republican from Long Island. But Mr. Hannon chose to receive a larger stipend — $25,000 — for his role as assistant majority leader on conference operations.

Mike Murphy, a spokesman for the Senate Democratic Conference, called the idea of vice-chairmen taking chairmanship stipends “disturbing.”

The arrangement between the I.D.C. and the Republican Party in the State Senate has been a vexing, and growing, problem for the traditional group of Democrats in that chamber. Three new members — Mr. Peralta, Senator Jesse Hamilton of Brooklyn and Senator Marisol Alcantara of Manhattan — joined the conference in late 2016 and early 2017, vastly increasing the power of the group, which is led by Senator Jeffrey D. Klein, who represents parts of the Bronx and Westchester County.

Both Mr. Hamilton and Ms. Alcantara received powerful chairmanships after joining the I.D.C. Mr. Hamilton leads the Banks Committee, while Ms. Alcantara, in her first year as senator, leads the Labor Committee. Both committees were formerly led by Ms. Savino, a veteran and well-regarded senator who currently leads no committee, though she serves as vice-chairwoman on the Codes and Finance Committees. (She receives no stipend for the Finance role.)

The financial bonus for becoming a chairman is evident: Mr. Hamilton, for example, had previously been a member of the mainline Democrats, led by Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and was the ranking member of the Banking Committee, earning a stipend of $9,500 a year.

In November, Mr. Hamilton left Ms. Stewart-Cousins’s camp for Mr. Klein’s conference, saying that “they get results.” Now, as banking chairman, Mr. Hamilton gets a $15,000 stipend — a $5,500 raise.

I.D.C. members now lead four committees and hold four vice-chairmanships. Tony Avella, a Queens senator who defected to the I.D.C. in 2014, serves as chairman of the Children and Families Committee. Unlike his other I.D.C. colleagues, however, Mr. Avella does not collect a stipend.

Conner Quinn, a spokesman for Mr. Avella, said the senator did not accept stipends for ethical reasons. “It’s a matter of principle,” he said.

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