Opinion

Lulu scandal a proxy for infighting Democrats in the Senate

Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo

Democrats and Republicans in both the state Senate and Assembly must be getting hot under the collar since learning that the acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York is sending federal investigators to Albany to investigate a legislative slush fund unknown to most voters.

Of course, for this latest investigation of public corruption in the state Capitol, legislators can thank the cannibals among the state Senate Democrats who have been trying to make a meal of their colleagues who formed the Independent Democratic Conference.

Once the feds arrive in Albany, they are unlikely to limit their investigation to the IDC members that the Democrats were targeting. Investigators will be legally obliged to follow any leads they find, in whatever direction that takes them.

But it’s not only state legislators who should be worried. The majority parties in county legislatures across the state also may get some unwanted attention as media outlets work to localize the story.

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The legislative stipends, or “lulus,” are payments to members of the state Legislature for chairing committees and task forces, or for holding leadership positions.

Until this week, most New Yorkers had no idea that on top of the $79,500 annual salary legislators collect, almost all of them have been nickel-and-diming taxpayers with extra fees for work presumably covered under the job description for “state legislator.”

The minority party conferences, the Democrats in the state Senate and the Republicans in the Assembly, get some leadership lulus, but are locked out of the more lucrative lulus for committee chairs.

This includes the legislator who is leading the charge for a criminal investigation. State Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins gets the third-largest payment of any member of the state Senate from this legislative slush fund.

Last week, Stewart-Cousins announced she was shocked – shocked! – that there was gambling in the casino and demanded a probe into the payments that some IDC members were getting even though they were not committee chairs.

That’s pretty daring for several reasons.

Stewart-Cousins takes home an annual $34,500 lulu for serving as minority leader.

Democrats and Republicans, just two months ago, breathed a huge sigh of relief when President Donald Trump fired the U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. He was investigating leads developed by the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption, which state legislators had pressed Gov. Andrew Cuomo to shut down before it finished its work.

And, finally, there is the abuse of the system that the lulu represents, which editorial boards around the state have been writing about for decades. And now, since last week, reporters and editorial writers are back on the lulu beat.

Lulu is short for “payment in lieu of expenses.” Yet, a review of the Legislature’s budget will show that legislators who collect lulus are also still putting in for expenses. In the state Legislature, they refer to their expenses as per diems.

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For each day spent in Albany, New York legislators each collect $172, even if they live within walking distance of the state Capitol. But even that is not enough for some legislators, and every couple of years some of them go to jail for falsifying expenses.

Maybe instead of per diem, the more honest name would be the double-dip.

Legislators have been whining for years that they are underpaid; yet they have not had the courage to vote for a raise for themselves, as the law allows. Instead, they’ve been dipping into the state treasury for extra fees.

And now the feds have accepted Stewart-Cousins’ invitation to swarm Albany and review legislators’ financial records – the ultimate nuclear option in the bloodletting between mainline Democrats and the Independent Democratic Conference.

Now any chance of Stewart-Cousins ever reuniting Democrats in the state Senate is likely over. That’s probably why she’s exploring running for county executive in Westchester. Why endure another legislative session with the “three men in the room” hammering out important decisions while she peers through the keyhole?

It didn’t have to be this way. Stewart-Cousins’ decision not to reach out to IDC Leader Jeffrey Klein following the 2016 election was a failure of leadership. Instead of trying to harness voters’ discontent with the national election by reinvigorating the state party to elect more Democrats, the leader of the state Senate mainline Democrats is plotting to run candidates against fellow Democrats. And now she’s compounding her failures by encouraging the feds to sift through the muck.

Millions of New Yorkers have been marching in streets across the state since Trump was elected president. Many thought that New York would be a sanctuary for progressive politics during this era. But for progressive politics to flourish, we actually need smart, united progressive leaders, and an end to petty infighting.

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