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Per diem reform could soon be on a special session agenda

401(K) 2012

New York state lawmakers are pushing for their first pay raise in fifteen years, and say in exchange they might be willing to give up the practice of a daily stipend for each day they spend in Albany, known as per diems, that has sometimes led to abuse.

Legislators receive $172 for every day that they spend in Albany, above normal travel and lodging expenses, and in addition to their $79,500 annual base pay.

That system has led to some abuses in recent years, with lawmakers accused of fudging their records to show they spent time in Albany when they were really elsewhere, or staying extra days at the Capitol simply to collect the additional daily stipend.

“The system has really been more or less an honor system,” said state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

Schneiderman has been probing alleged per diem abuse, and his work has led to the indictment of at least one lawmaker, Assemblyman William Scarborough, who’s accused of wrongly receiving $40,000 in travel reimbursements and per diem payments that he was not entitled to.

He says per diems should perhaps be scrapped altogether.  

“I certainly think we’re better off raising legislative salaries,” said Schneiderman, who believes per diem payments provide the wrong financial incentives, since it encourages lawmakers to stay in Albany instead of their home districts when the legislature is not in session. “I’m not sure that’s really a good model for how things should operate."

Legislative leaders voiced similar thoughts. Lawmakers are pushing for their first pay raise since 1999, and Senate GOP Leader Dean Skelos says he’d accept a deal on a salary increase that would include reform of the per diem system.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver says he’s also interested in changes to the per diem system as part of the pay raise plan.

“I’m obviously open to suggestions,” Silver said.

Schneiderman, who was a state senator for several years, says it’s not that hard to fix the per diem system. He suggests requiring more documentation from lawmakers, among other things.  

“It’s not like inventing a cure for cancer,” Schneiderman said. “This is something that can be dealt with and should be dealt with.”

In the meantime, he says his office and federal prosecutors will continue to scrutinize lawmakers whose per diem payments and other travel expenses don’t add up.

There are no firm plans yet to hold a special session next month.

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.