hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Editorial June 2017



Backdrop of scandal sets stage for lulus


At first blush, the recent kerfuffle over legislative stipends hardly seems to rank among the biggest or worst of Albany scandals.

After all, it’s been barely a year since longtime Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was sentenced to 12 years in federal prison after being convicted of lining his pockets to the tune of $5 million. Within the same month, the former majority leader of the state Senate, Dean Skelos, drew a five-year prison term for strong-arming a private company to install his son in a high-paying, little-show job.

Silver and Skelos, who both remain free while appealing their convictions, are just the most prominent of about three dozen New York legislators over the past 15 years who left office either in handcuffs or in the midst of criminal inquiries. Against this backdrop, corruption in Albany has to rise to a certain level to get noticed.

It’s far from clear whether the controversy over legislative stipends -- or lulus, as they are known – involves any criminal intent. But it has caught the public’s attention because it appears to fit with a pattern of state legislators taking care of themselves first and figuring out a rationale later.
The New York Times broke the story of the lulus in mid-May, when it reported that at least six state senators (it turned out to be eight) were being paid thousands of dollars a year in stipends for serving as committee chairmen – even though they weren’t actually the chairmen of the committees specified in pay documents submitted to the state comptroller’s office.

Legislators in New York are paid a base salary of $79,500 a year. But those who serve in specific leadership positions or as committee chairmen are eligible for an additional “payment in lieu of salary,” or lulu. In the Senate, lulus range from $9,000 to $41,500 a year.

Under state law, each lawmaker may collect only one lulu, even if, for example, the same legislator serves in a leadership post as well as chairing a committee. So in a bit of creative accounting that started about two years ago, Republican leaders in the state Senate began approving payment of unclaimed chairmanship lulus to the vice chairmen of committees – even though the law doesn’t specify vice chairmen as entitled to extra pay.

At least three of the non-chairmen being paid as chairmen are members of the Independent Democratic Conference, a breakaway group of Democrats who in recent years have helped Republicans retain control of the Senate.

What’s wonderfully absurd about all of this is that, because of New York’s dysfunctional legislative process, most Senate and Assembly committees don’t actually do very much crafting of legislation. Nearly all consequential legislation is finalized in closed-door state budget negotiations by “three men in a room” – the governor, Assembly speaker and Senate majority leader.

So the responsibilities of committee vice chairmen are rather limited. The Rochester Democrat & Chronicle underscored this point when it reported last month that Republican Sen. Tom O’Mara of the Southern Tier, who gets an extra $15,000 a year for serving as vice chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, didn’t attend any of the committee’s meetings this year until May -- after the lulu scandal hit the papers. Similarly, the New York Post reported that Sen. Patrick Gallivan, who’s paid $18,000 extra as vice chairman of the Senate Education Committee, missed four of that panel’s six meetings this year.

Some watchdogs have questioned whether the paperwork approving the payments to vice chairmen, which falsely identifies them as committee chairmen, might constitute “filing a false instrument,” a felony under state law. State, federal and local prosecutors all are reported to be looking into the lulu affair.
But Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan and his lawyer maintain that the payments are legal – and that the practice for paying vice chairmen actually started under his predecessor, Dean Skelos.

Given what became of Skelos, he might not be the best legal authority to cite.



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