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Blair Horner: Albany Wants A Pay Raise

Now that the election is safely behind them, Governor Cuomo and state legislators have begun to raise the issue of a pay raise.

The governor has repeatedly stated that the salaries of his commissioners are so low that he is having a hard time recruiting capable candidates.  State legislators have said that their stagnant salaries contribute to the temptation for lawmakers to behave unethically in order to bring in more income.

But what are the facts?

Salaries for the governor, his commissioners and state legislators are set in law.  Governor Cuomo’s salary is set at $179,000. State law sets commissioner pay at up to $136,000.

The last time salaries were raised was in 1999.  That their salaries have been frozen for fifteen years is at the heart of the case for raising salaries now.

How do state lawmakers’ salaries compare to other states?  New York State legislators are the third highest paid in the nation.  New York lawmakers get a base salary of $79,500.  Pennsylvania lawmakers get $84,012 and California lawmakers top the nation with $90,526. 

In addition, New York lawmakers get a “per diem” allowance for being in Albany of $172 per day.  State lawmakers in “leadership” positions get an additional stipend that ranges from $6,000 to $41,500 – on top of their salaries and per diems.  In the Senate, the 63 members all get at least $9,000 for leadership positions, and so do all Assembly Republicans – even though they are in the minority. Some Assembly Democrats, because they have twice as many members than Republicans, don't get a leadership boost.  Many of these Assembly Democrats live downstate, where costs are significantly higher.

Proponents of a pay raise compare New York’s state legislative salaries with those of members of Congress, $174,000 and the New York City Council’s $112,500.

Pay raise proponents do not mention that members of Congress are full-time and thus have significant restrictions on their ability to make money outside of being an elected official.  In Albany, state lawmakers have no such restrictions.

And more than half of legislators earned some outside income in 2012.  A review by the New York Public Interest Research Group found that lawmakers' household income averaged between $178,000 and $238,000; the median was between $137,000 and $172,000.

Pay raise proponents’ comparison of state legislative salaries with New York City councilmembers leaves out one key fact:  City Councilmembers are term-limited and have to leave office after two, four year terms (eight years total).  New York State legislators, on the other hand, have no such restriction.

So, the case for raising salaries really hinges on the fact that they haven’t had a raise in a long-time.  But what lawmakers’ new salary should be is open to debate – no other state legislature has a base salary that exceeds $91,000.

Since the election is over, the buzz at the Capitol is that the governor and lawmakers will return in December to hold a special session to address this issue as well as other topics.

The last time lawmakers got a raise, then-Governor Pataki demanded that lawmakers agree to other, non-salary, legislation in exchange.  That package included an agreement that lawmakers would not get paid in the event of late budgets (which really didn’t have much impact) and the creation of charter schools in New York.

The buzz is that reform of the per diem system would be the reform that lawmakers would approve as part of a special session package.  Abuse of the per diem system by some state lawmakers has been at the center of many ethics scandals in Albany.  Since there have been no public discussions, no one know what that reform could look like – perhaps requiring lawmakers to submit receipts for reimbursement instead of per diems.  But if that’s all they do to improve Albany’s ethical climate, they will not have done enough.

Here is a list of some areas badly in need of reform: (1) Wealthy and powerful interests provide most of the money for political campaigns and expect something in return as a result.  Overhauling the campaign finance system should be a top priority; (2) The state’s ethics watchdogs operate in secret and are dominated by political appointees.  New York needs an independent ethics oversight entity. (3) The governor has mandated that staff delete email records after 90 days.  Since electronic communications are the modern version of the written memo, such records should be preserved for years, not months.  (4) The Legislature’s rules should be overhauled, for example if lawmakers want a raise, they should be required to attend committee meetings and public hearings.  (5) New York ranks near the bottom in voter participation.  The state should make it easier to participate, by allowing new voters to register and vote on election day and by allowing early voting, instead of only on a workday on the first Tuesday in November.

There is much more that needs to be done.  But if part of the justification for a pay raise is that it be tied to measures to enhance ethics at the Capitol, merely requiring receipts for expenses is not enough.  More comprehensive ethics changes are needed.


Blair Horner is the Legislative Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.


The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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