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Commentary & Opinion

Blair Horner: Will NY’s Electeds Get a Pay Raise?

When it comes to cleaning up Albany, last week’s events indicate that the broom has been put away for now.  Governor Cuomo announced that the ethics issue had fallen off the table of the budget deliberations.  He added that he would make sure it was a top priority in the post-budget session.

We’ll see.

It was the governor, after all, who put the ethics issue in the budget in the first place.  Yet, the governor has done virtually nothing to galvanize public support for his reform package in the two months it was released– despite nearly 90 percent of New Yorkers wanting changes.

At the same time, a commission appointed by the governor, the legislative leaders, and the courts, is examining whether New York’s public officials deserve a pay raise. That commission will hold a hearing this week to allow for public comment on pay raises.

New York pays its state lawmakers comparatively well: the governor gets the second highest salary in the country (Tennessee pays the most) and our legislature gets the third highest salary (behind California and Pennsylvania).  So what’s the argument for pay increases?

The argument stems from the fact that state elected officials haven’t had a pay increase since 1999, which is a long time.  And when that decision was made, then-Governor Pataki linked his approval of pay increases to non-related policy changes—that is, horse trading for lawmaker pay.  The pay raise before that one was also linked to policies.

This time around, the governor and the legislature agreed to create a commission to review salaries.  They gave it the power to hike pay without additional legislative approval.  However, the governor and the legislature will still be able to roll back the pay raise if they choose.

The commission idea makes sense – lawmakers shouldn’t have to face linkages between appropriate pay and policies advanced by the governor.

It only makes sense, however, if the commission is independent and relies on objective analyses conducted in a public manner.  Whether this commission meets those standards remains to be seen.  The majority of the pay raise commissioners are picked by the governor and the legislative leaders. 

New Yorkers have seen far too many commissions that serve at the beck and call of the political establishment.  Time will tell if this commission is free to follow its objective analysis.

Also, given Albany’s seemingly unending series of political scandals, how will a pay raise sit with the public who has to pay for it?  As mentioned earlier, the governor and the legislature have decided to drop (at least for now) the issue of ethics reform.  And the reason that ethics reform is on the table is the direct result of the arrests and convictions of the state’s top legislative leaders.  And these convictions followed dozens of other instances in which lawmakers behaved badly; conduct that doesn’t seem to be abating.

How will the public feel about a pay raise for Albany when the governor and the legislature are not tackling the biggest scandals in New York modern political history?

My guess is that New Yorkers will not be happy.

Of course, that does not argue that public officials don’t deserve a pay raise, that’s up to the commission to independently and publicly discuss.  However, if the governor and the legislature can’t agree on cleaning out Albany’s political stables, then the public has every right to be angry.

The pay commission does not have authority to make changes on key ethics reforms – like limiting the outside employment income of elected officials – but it can create some pressure to keep the governor and the legislature focused on doing their jobs and fixing Albany.

The commissioners can promise to release their recommendations well in advance of this November’s elections, but after the legislative session ends in June.  In that way, the public can hold candidates for office accountable.  If they have truly improved Albany’s ethical climate, defending a pay raise would be relatively easy.

Failing to substantially reform ethics, on the other hand, would make a pay raise indefensible. 

The commission must remember who picks up the tab for governmental salaries and who has had to endure years of broken promises to reform Albany.  They deserve a say.

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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