Opinion & Blogs

Little ‘lulus’ add up in state Senate stipend cash grab

The New York State Capitol in Albany, Jan. 17, 2018. (Nathaniel Brooks/The New York Times)

New York state lawmakers have spent a good portion of the last few months decrying the state’s $4.4 billion deficit. As budget negotiations continue in Albany, they have been scrambling to come up with a spending plan that makes up for that large hole.

Here’s one way they can contribute: Give back the money that doesn’t belong to them.

In May 2017 the New York Times revealed that four Republicans and three members of the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) — all members of the state Senate — had been receiving thousands of dollars in stipends for leadership positions that they didn’t actually hold.

Two were senators representing parts of Central New York: Democrat David Valesky, who represents the city of Syracuse and parts of Onondaga, Madison and Oneida counties, and Republican Patty Ritchie, who represents Oswego County and areas along Lake Ontario up to Massena.

Ritchie was authorized to receive a $15,000 bonus for serving as chair of the Senate Health Committee, even though she was actually only the deputy vice chair. Valesky, the current vice chair of the Health Committee, was identified in documents in 2015 and 2016 as chairman of the committee, and consequently received $30,000 in gross pay during those two years for a job he doesn’t have. That’s on top of his $79,500 base salary that all members of the Legislature receive.

The Times report caused a blizzard of outrage from the public and from fellow lawmakers. Shortly after the report, federal authorities launched an investigation into the practice to determine if it is illegal. The status of that probe is not yet known.

One year later, it turns out the state Senate leadership doesn’t seem even slightly interested in amending the situation. Last week, state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s office told The New York Times that they had once again received Senate payroll certifications listing five senators — again all Republicans or IDC members — as chairs of Senate committees who do not actually serve as chairs.

The certifications again label Sen. Ritchie as chair of the Health Committee (which she isn’t) and labels Sen. Valesky as “senior assistant majority leader of the Senate,” a position that allegedly warrants a $27,500 payment. Valesky is not listed under that position on the state Senate website nor on a list of his memberships on his own website.

As a result of these latest developments, DiNapoli threatened to withhold the stipends unless it can be proven that a lawmaker’s title on a committee or board warrants a stipend. He also said his office will attempt to take back the money already scheduled to be paid if proper explanation is not provided.

That means Valesky and Ritchie could lose three-fourths of the stipends that their Senate superiors apparently believe they are entitled to.

How are vice chairs and deputy vice chairs taking payments reserved for chairs? Well, the New York state Senate has one of the most extensive monetary bonus programs in the country, where nearly all 63 members earn stipends, also known as “lulus,” that they get from holding various leadership positions. Those stipends add between $9,000 and $34,000 to their annual wages.

State law mandates lawmakers who hold multiple leadership roles can only take a stipend from one of them. So if one legislator is chair of a committee, but is also a member of the Senate leadership, he or she naturally takes the higher of the two stipends, leaving the other one hanging.

Senate leadership apparently believes that means the remaining stipend should go to the legislator next in command, even though state law dictates that those positions aren’t entitled to one. They argue that a state law provision allows unspecified pay for senators serving in a “special capacity,” although that provision does not specifically say whether chairman stipends can be transferred legally to other members.

So if we can’t rely on Senate leadership to do the decent thing, maybe we can rely on the senators themselves to turn down the stipends or return them to the state treasury? That’s laughable. All senators in last year’s circus, with the exception of Pam Helming (R-Canandaigua), maintained that the lulus they received were legal and pocketed them despite the scrutiny. Both Valesky and Ritchie said the stipends they got were “well-earned.”

Legal or not, the leadership’s defense of this indefensible act, combined with senators playing right along, is just another example of Albany’s pay-to-play culture. Or as the self-described nonpartisan government watchdog Reclaim New York puts it, the lulu practice is “using paperwork tricks at best, and fraud at worst.”

In a four-page memo released last year about the stipends, Senate officials said that the documents sent to the comptroller with the false titles were simply a way to ensure payment, not to lie about the position they held.

The problem here is that they did both. And now they’re doing it again.

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