January 28, 2019
ALBANY, NY – From State Senator Tom O’Mara:
State Senator Tom O’Mara (R,C,I-Big Flats) today said that an opinion from the state Board of Elections (BOE), which he requested earlier this month and received on Friday, permits state legislators to use campaign committee funds to challenge the actions of the New York State Compensation Committee.
“I appreciate the Board’s prompt, timely, and positive response to my request and look forward to taking this opinion into account as I continue to consider a legal challenge against the Compensation Committee’s actions, which I believe clearly violate the intent of the authorizing legislation,” O’Mara said.
O’Mara has been considering legal action since the Compensation Committee moved forward with its recommendations in early December 2018. In a letter to the BOE earlier this month, he asked for the board’s ruling on the ability of a legislator to use his or her campaign committee to fund a legal challenge.
The BOE opinion, expected to be formally released on Monday, applies applicable provisions of state Election Law and concludes that “the use of campaign funds to pay for legal fees associated with litigation challenging the actions of the Committee on Legislative and Executive Compensation would be ‘provided in connection with the execution of the duties of public office,’ and is permissible.”
O’Mara contends that the Compensation Committee was authorized only to determine whether a legislative salary increase was warranted and, if so, to set new compensation levels. The committee’s additional actions — including a near-total ban on a legislator’s ability to earn an outside, private-sector income and tying the receipt of legislative salary increases to the on-time adoption of the annual state budget — fall far beyond the intended powers of the Compensation Committee, O’Mara added.
Citing Section 2, Paragraph 2 of the authorizing legislation (Part HHH of Chapter 59 of the Laws of 2018), O’Mara stressed that the legislation creating the Compensation Committee, enacted as part of the 2018-2019 state budget, is explicit that “the committee shall determine whether, on January 1, 2019, the ANNUAL SALARY AND ALLOWANCES (emphasis added) of members of the Legislature…WARRANT AN INCREASE (emphasis added).”
O’Mara, who has long practiced law as a private-sector attorney and is presently a member of the Barclay Damon LLP law firm in its Elmira office, issued the following statement today:
“The significant changes made by the Compensation Committee to the Legislature’s structure and makeup were not contemplated by the authorizing legislation. Alterations to the part-time Legislature as established in our New York State Constitution can and should only be made by a Constitutional Amendment put forth in a referendum to the voters.
“Furthermore, the Committee’s linking of any salary increase to final budget adoption is inappropriate, at best, and more akin to extortion, while it further erodes the checks and balances, and the separation of powers between the Executive and the Legislature indispensable to democratic government. It risks a dangerous and a troubling strike at the Legislature’s independence.
“Consequently, I believe the actions of the Compensation Committee fundamentally and profoundly alter the holding of public office as a New York State legislator. This was never intended by the Legislature in the legislation establishing the Compensation Committee and, in fact, falls far outside the Committee’s legally authorized powers.
“The Committee’s action, outside of determining whether a salary increase was warranted and what that compensation level should be, violated the law and should be challenged. The Board of Elections opinion is therefore welcome and clearly opens an avenue for legislators like myself to consider and possibly more fully pursue a legal challenge.”