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State Senate to form another coalition government

Karen Dewitt
WRVO News (file photo)
Sen. Jeff Klein is the leader of the Independent Democratic Conference. (file photo)

The leader of the state Senate Republicans says his members will once again join forces with a group of breakaway Democrats to rule the Senate come January. Sen. Dean Skelos says his members also want a pay raise.

Republicans won a bare majority of 32 seats in the 2014 elections and Skelos, following a two-hour closed door meeting with his Republican members, says the GOP will once again form a coalition government with Sen. Jeff Klein, the leader of the Independent Democrats.

“There was a consensus that we would like to keep a coalition going, and I will be having discussions with Sen. Klein on how we move forward,” Skelos said.

Skelos would not say whether he and Klein would once again be co-leaders of the chamber as they have been for the past two years.

Skelos says GOP Senators also want a salary increase. The last time they received one was in 1999.

“I’ve said I’m in favor of the pay raise on numerous occasions,” Skelos said. “It’s been 14 years.”

Base pay for senators and assembly members is $79,500 a year, but they often earn more than that in stipends for committee chairmanships and leadership posts. Under the state’s constitution, lawmakers cannot raise their own pay, but they can approve a salary increase for the next term, which begins in 2015. Since most of the legislators have been reelected, they would benefit from the increase.   

The rules mean that the Senate and Assembly would have to act by the end of the calendar year.

Sen. Kathy Marchione, a now two-term senator from the capital region, says while she is leaning against personally supporting a pay raise, the political timing might be better for one to happen now. She says two years ago, when she was a senator-elect, the state was still struggling with a deficit. Now it has a more than $5 billion surplus.

“Since 1999, that’s a very long time without an increase in salary,” she said.  

Skelos says he’s had no discussions yet with Gov. Andrew Cuomo, but in the past governors have granted pay raises to lawmakers in exchange for agreements on items that they have sought. Cuomo wants a number of progressive measures that Republican senators have rejected in the past.

He said on election night he’ll push for a Women’s Equality Act that contains an abortion rights provision, and a college aid program for the children of immigrants who are in this country illegally, known as the Dream Act.

Skelos ruled out those proposals, but did leave the door open a crack to another issue Cuomo is seeking -- raising the state’s minimum wage.

“I’m always willing to discuss things,” Skelos said.

The Senate GOP leader points out that the state already approved small gradual increases in the state’s minimum wage. It will go to $8.75 an hour on December 31 of this year, and $9.00 an hour on December 31, 2015. Skelos says he would not be in favor of allowing local governments to set their own minimum wage, a provision sought by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, and the Republican leader also rejected a proposal to tie future minimum wage increases to an automatic cost of living adjustment.

Skelos says if lawmakers do come back for a vote on a pay raise in a special December session, he’d also like to work out how to spend the one-time multi-billion dollar state surplus due to settlements with major banks over the financial crisis. Skelos says he’d like to see the money go to a fund for road and bridge repair and other infrastructure projects.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.