The New York State Capitol.

New York senators’ scandal highlights vast stipend system

ALBANY, N.Y. — Lawmakers in many states get paid extra if they hold leadership posts or oversee important committees. Extra work, the thinking goes, should equal extra pay.

But few state legislatures have a bonus system as extensive as the one in New York’s state senate, where nearly all 63 members take home stipends nicknamed “lulus” that add between $9,000 and $34,000 to their wages.

That stipend system has now drawn new scrutiny following an investigation that revealed eight senators were getting bonuses reserved for committee chairs, even though they were vice chairs.

Some good-government groups say New York’s senate may be the first that has found ways to pay lawmakers for jobs they don’t have.

“They have these stipends for positions and we have no idea what these people do,” said Blair Horner, executive director of New York Public Interest Research Group. “I assume they just don’t want public scrutiny.”

The term “lulu” once referred to payments “in lieu” of expense money, but now spans a spectrum of wage bonuses. Most of the state’s senators hold multiple roles that might qualify for extra pay, though they can choose only one to be added to their salaries. The state’s Assembly also offers lulus, but there are fewer to go around in the 150-member body.

Dozens of other states give top legislative leaders extra pay and at least 17 compensate lawmakers for their roles in committees.

Most, though, reserve the stipends for lawmakers in powerful positions.

The bonuses range from tens of thousands of dollars for appropriations committee chairs in Pennsylvania to just $10 a day for standing committee chair in North Dakota.

In Massachusetts, lawmakers this year overrode a veto to bump some leadership salaries, raising most committee chair’s bonuses to $30,000 and most vice chairs to $15,000. The top leaders in the Massachusetts House and Senate saw their stipends jump to $80,000 each.

California lawmakers, whose salary of $104,118 is the nation’s highest, do not receive additional money for committee roles.

Critics say that compared to most other states, New York’s stipend system in the Senate is ripe for manipulation.

The New York Times reported earlier this month that at least five Republicans, and three members of the Independent Democratic Conference, the faction of rogue Democrats who ally with Republicans to give the party its majority, had been incorrectly marked as committee chairs in state payroll documents so they could receive higher stipends.

Gerald Benjamin, director of The Benjamin Center, said New York Senate leadership is “more willing to push the edge” with the system in order to placate the independent Democrats.

“Ethically, I think, giving money allocated to one job or practice to someone who is not doing that practice is problematic,” he said, adding that it would also darken the clouds over an institution the public already views with skepticism.

Republican leaders in New York’s senate defended their use of the stipend system.

A lawyer for the Republican leadership, David Lewis, wrote a memo saying the additional compensation falls under a specific clause allowing unspecified pay for senators serving in a “special capacity.”

“I believe all the members — Democrat, Republican, Assembly or Senate — are worthy of the compensation that they receive,” Majority Leader John Flanagan, a Republican, told reporters earlier this month.

The senators who have taken the stipends have said their compensation is legal.

Senate Democrats accused the Republicans of illegally using the lulu system to buy loyalty and maintain their hold on power.

“Somebody needs to get to the bottom of it because, again, this is taxpayer dollars,” said Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins during the public radio program The Capitol Pressroom. “And it’s either in law. Or not.”

Mike Murphy, a spokesman for Senate Democratic leaders, said the Albany district attorney recently asked for an informational meeting to discuss allocations in the stipend system.

The state hasn’t raised the $79,500 base pay for senators in nearly 20 years.