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47 percent legislative pay raise proposal in New York fuels debate

A panel appointed by the scandal-ridden New York State Legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo will soon decide whether to give state lawmakers a 47 percent pay hike.

The Commission on Legislative, Judicial and Executive Compensation has until Nov. 15 to decide whether to approve a pay increase. That’s a full week after the general election, even though the pay issue has emerged as an election issue in some state legislative races in New York.

New York's legislature has been racked by scandals over the past 16 years. Former Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos were convicted on federal corruption and bribery charges in 2015.  . 

Opponents characterize the proposed pay raise as shady and an insult to struggling taxpayers. A 47 pay hike would boost lawmakers' base salaries to more than $116,000.

Ken Girardin, an analyst at the Empire Center for Public Policy, told AMI Newswire that the formation of the compensation commission last year may violate the state constitution's delineation of powers. And while the legislative session spans six months of the year, it actually consists of only 60 days total, during many of which lawmakers engage in ceremonial activities or political theater, Girardin said.

"There’s a misperception that state lawmakers are working full-time,” he said. 

In a letter last week to the commission, Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said a pay raise for lawmakers was warranted and overdue, given that Assembly members and senators have not had a raise since 1999. Lawmakers’ base salary remains at $79,500, but in real purchasing power the pay has been eroded to $53,997 – a decline of 32 percent, Heastie said.

“Legislators are not insulated from the same financial pressures that are experienced by their constituents,” Heastie said the letter. “They too must finance college loans, support the costs of childcare and the well-being of elderly parents, and take care of loved ones at home.”

A pay increase would also ensure that the legislature attracts the best people for the job, he said. Although lawmakers’ positions have been considered part-time because they typically are in session for only the first half of the year, the demands of the jobs have increased “dramatically,” Heastie said.

“A more professional legislature results in more contact with constituents, more attention to their concerns and better representation,” the Assembly speaker said. “It also leads to greater ability to deal with complex legislation and more innovation.”

Republican Sen. George Amedore of Rotterdam told AMI that he opposes any pay increase in pay for lawmakers, saying that the legislature’s performance in recent years doesn’t merit such a reward.
“At a time when so many families, businesses and seniors are struggling to get by, the idea of a 47 percent pay increase for lawmakers is outrageous,” Amedore said.

The senator’s priority is to ease burdens on taxpayers, as opposed to saddling them with the bill for a pay hike, he said.

Amedore also rejected the idea of tying a pay raise to ethics reforms.

“Absolutely not,” he said. “There is no question ethics reform is needed – including pension forfeiture and term limits. But it should not be a trade-off for a pay raise.”

Another lawmaker objected to the whole concept of having an appointed panel decide the matter.

“With New York struggling to rebuild its image after years of corruption and in-the-dark operations, we cannot afford to betray the recovery process with misguided and shady tactics such as allowing a pay commission to endow legislators with a hefty pay increase,” Assemblyman Ken Blankenbush (R-Black River) said in a prepared statement.

The commission consists of seven members, two appointed by the state’s chief judge, three appointed by the governor, one appointed by the Assembly speaker and one appointed by the Senate majority leader.

Nationwide, in states where the legislatures can raise their own pay, there’s a reluctance to do so because the issue often becomes politically charged, according the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). A total of 14 states have not increased lawmakers’ pay at all over the past 10 years, while other states have seen only modest increases, the NCSL reports.

Pay levels for lawmakers around the nation vary wildly. New York’s pay rate is currently the third highest in the nation, behind California, where the base pay is $100,113, and Pennsylvania, where lawmakers’ salaries are $85,339, according to the NCSL. At the lower end, Texas lawmakers make $7,200 annually, while New Hampshire legislators have to make do with $200 per two-year term.

Supporters of the pay hike in New York point to research that shows the benefits of competitive lawmaker salaries. Peverill Squire, a University of Missouri political science professor, testified during a commission hearing that higher pay leads to more candidates running for legislative seats and thus bolsters democracy.

“In general, the incidence of uncontested seats declines as legislative pay increases,” Squire said. “Voters in states with lower paid legislators are often provided no electoral choices.”

As proof, he pointed to Georgia, where state legislators receive under $18,000 per year and eight out of 10 seats go uncontested.

Higher pay also attracts candidates with stronger academic credentials, Squire said. In California, 88 percent of lawmakers have college degrees, while in New Hampshire it’s only 49 percent, he said.

Critics of the New York pay raise proposal, however, said lawmakers’ pay is more than adequate. On top of a base salary of $80,000, lawmakers in leadership posts get stipends. Plus, there is per-diem pay when the legislature is in session and mileage compensation.

A December 2014 analysis by the Empire Center for Public Policy found that nearly five out of six New York state lawmakers earned more than $90,000 in 2013 due to pay they received on top of the base salary.