Members of the State Senate majority have been receiving stipends for committee chairmanships they don't actually hold. While the legislators say there is nothing in the law prohibiting this extra compensation, others say it's a violation of the law's intent, and at the very least in an ethically grey area. State House Reporter Zack Fink has the story.
When State Senator Jose Peralta bolted from the group of Democrats earlier this year to the breakaway Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), he said he wanted to "move the ball forward."
But it also came with something else: a stipend on top of his salary worth $12,500 to chair the Senate Energy and Telecommunications Committee.
But he isn't actually the chair; he is the vice chair.
According to records from the State Comptroller's office, the Senate majority, which comprises Senate Republicans and the IDC, identified Peralta as a committee chair when requesting the stipend. State Senator Diane Savino is also named chair of codes even though she, too, is vice chair.
Critics immediately seized on this as evidence IDC members are aligned with Republicans to line their own pockets.
"Why are you doing this?" State Sen. Gustavo Rivera of the Bronx said. "Is it truly to get a better progressive policy as they continue to claim, or is this just so they can do something for themselves?"
But it's not just the IDC. Senate Republicans have also received stipends for titles they didn't hold.
State Senators Patty Ritchie, Thomas O'Mara, and Patrick Gallivan were identified by the Senate, in correspondence to the State Comptroller's office, as the chairs of the Health, Transportation, and Education Committees, respectively, even though all three were actually vice chairs.
"In fact, the words "vice chair" don't even show up. This is supposed to be money that goes to committee chairs because they do extra work," said Blair Horner of NYPIRG. "The money is going to vice chairs, which is a new part of the system."
Defenders say the law allows the stipends, commonly known as a "lulus," to be transferred to someone else if the actual chair gets a higher stipend from some other leadership title.
But critics say that appears either to have been intentionally left vague in these requests to the comptroller, or they are purposefully deceptive.
"The fact that they are doing it deceptively makes it clear that they know the public won't like it when they find out," Horner said.
Critics say they would like to see a major overhaul by either ending stipends altogether, or at least making it much more transparent about who gets what.
Part of the problem is that lawmakers haven't had a pay raise since 1999, so many rely on the stipends as income.