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Commentary & Opinion

Blair Horner: Pay Raise Deal Rages In Albany

A week ago, a panel decided to give New York’s lawmakers, the governor, the attorney general, the comptroller and state agency heads big salary increases.  They did so under authority granted to them by the governor and the legislature and their decision tied pay hikes to limits for these state government leaders on outside income for lawmakers as well as a dramatic reduction in the number of additional stipends available to legislators. 

Since then, there has been a chorus of complaints from many lawmakers that the panel exceeded its authority.  Let’s review the facts.

For two decades, state lawmakers, statewide elected officials and state agency heads have not had a pay raise.  I think everyone would agree that 20 years without a pay hike is a very long time.

Despite that, the governor is the third highest paid governor in the nation and the pay for state legislators is third highest as well – even with the 20 year pay hike gap.

And even that doesn’t tell the whole story.  State lawmakers’ base salary is $79,500 annually, well above minimum wage, but nowhere near extravagant.  However, the overwhelming majority of lawmakers get additional stipends for their work. 

According to a recent analysis by NYPIRG, every one of the 63 state Senators is eligible for an additional stipend worth as little as $9,000 and as much as $41,500 – on top of the $79,500 base pay.  In the Assembly, every Assembly Republican is eligible for a stipend and two-thirds of the Assembly Democrats are eligible too.

Thus, the vast majority of legislators receive these additional stipends, if averaged out over all of them, they receive over $90,000.  Not too shabby, but not living the high life, either.

And lastly, under New York State law, lawmakers are allowed outside income for non-legislative jobs.  About a third of them have that.  The loudest complaints about the pay raise deal comes this group.  The reason is that under the plan advanced by the pay raise panel, the hike in salary is tied to two new changes – a dramatic limit on the amount of income a lawmaker can have outside of their legislative role and a drastic reduction in the number of available legislative stipends – from nearly everyone to no more than 15.

The complaints against the plan imply that this came as a surprise, as if something underhanded occurred.  This is hard to believe.

You see the panel was created as part of this year’s budget agreement.  It was on page 156 of the last budget bill to be approved.  And while last minute budget deals often catch lawmakers – and the public – by surprise, it’s hard to believe that this provision was a shock.

It is far more likely that a provision to hike lawmakers’ salaries was of keen interest to every single elected official. 

And given that they knew the public would hate paying more for state elected officials while corruption is on the rise and little was being done to fix that problem, the pay raise provision was put together to offer maximum protection from a voter revolt. 

Further, in addition to choosing current and former Comptrollers to figure out the raise, the bill said that if there are any increases in compensation, it must be linked to approval of a “timely” state budget and improvements in the “performance of the executive and legislature.” 

The legislation gave the panel no guidance by what those two provisions meant.  The governor and the state legislative leaders clearly wanted to give the power to determine what those provisions meant to the panel itself.

And what could a state lawmaker have thought when she or he read that section?  A “timely” state budget means one that is on time.  And what does “performance of the executive and legislature” mean?  The panel decided that gigantic salary increases should be coupled with a reduction in the number of additional stipends and limits on outside income.

One could argue that by leaving out any restrictions on the members of the executive branch that the deal was unfair, but you can’t argue that lawmakers couldn’t see this coming.

Of course, whether the governor and the legislature created a pay raise mechanism that is wrong will be left up to the courts to decide, but for lawmakers to make it seem like the panel went beyond its scope is to ignore the process that they read, approved of, and voted for.

They have nothing to complain about.

Blair Horner is executive 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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