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Holiday surprise: Pay raise for lawmakers?

The elections are over, the year is winding down, and . . . a pay raise for state legislators may be in the offing. Historically, pay raises have been considered right after elections since lawmakers know that the public doesn’t support raises and it gives them a couple of years to cool off. Holiday-filled December is usually the month and so rumors abound in Albany that this is the year for another one.

What triggered this year’s speculation (so far there is no official declaration of interest) was last month’s decision by New York’s highest court that the current mechanism for deciding on pay raises for the executive and legislative branches is constitutional.

To understand how we got here, it’s useful to know the back story behind the last pay raises for lawmakers and statewide elected – and appointed – officials to explain the current pay raise rumors and the tortured mechanism that could allow them.

Between the years 1998 and 2019, lawmakers received zero pay raises. Public opposition and partisan gridlock left frozen the salaries of lawmakers and members of the executive branch alike. Then in 2015, then-Governor Cuomo and the state’s legislative leaders struck a deal: A new commission would be established that would decide on pay raises.

The final result was that it advanced a pay raise plan right after the 2018 election. Unless the Legislature intervened to stop its own pay raise, it would go into effect starting on January 1, 2019, which it did.

As a result, state lawmakers and top agency heads got salary increases. Lawmakers’ salaries jumped from $79,500 to $110,000 – the second highest in the nation, just behind California (which is nearly $120,000). The pay raises would continue to go up until they reached $130,000. The panel also called for hiking the governor’s salary, which was also approved by lawmakers and now New York’s executive is the highest paid in the nation at $250,000.

But the salary increases for lawmakers came with some important caveats.

The commission voted to curtail lawmakers’ outside income to 15 percent of their salary and it moved to eliminate many of the lucrative stipends to which lawmakers have approved for themselves in previous years, which sometimes made up as much as half of their base pay.

In announcing their recommendations, the commission’s members emphasized the linkage between the pay increase and the restrictions on other income. They said the measures would help attract top talent to a body long tarnished by corruption and inefficiency.

That package was challenged in court. Initially, the courts ruled that the pay increase could go into effect but threw out the linkages to outside income limits and the automatic salary increases advanced by the commission. The high court’s decision last month found that the Legislature’s plan to establish a commission to determine a pay raise was constitutional. The decision opened the door to lawmakers’ consideration of future pay raises. And that’s where we are today.

Lawmakers argue – and Governor Hochul agrees – that they work hard and are entitled to an increase, one that had been blessed by the pay commission. Yet at the same time, they have been unwilling to curtail outside income. They consider themselves “part-time” and thus allowed to have second jobs.

It is that outside income that has been troublesome in the past and led to high profile scandals, most notably the former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver who went to jail for corrupt schemes that stemmed from his outside business interests.

In addition, outside experts consider New York’s Legislature “full time.” The National Conference of State Legislatures is among them, arguing that full-time legislatures “require the most time of legislators, usually 80 percent or more of a full-time job. In most [such] states, legislators are paid enough to make a living without requiring outside income. These legislatures are more similar to Congress than are the other state legislatures.”

Congress limits outside income because the members are full-time. The Congress limits outside income to nothing more than a small amount and bans income from any entity in which the Congressmember has a “fiduciary” relationship with a client. Being a “fiduciary” means putting the interests of your client ahead of your own. When you’re an elected official whose constituents’ interests are paramount, how do you do that when you have clients? Can lawmakers serve two masters? Both the Congress as well as the pay commission said no.

Ironically, a relatively small percentage of lawmakers have substantial outside income, but it’s their opposition which has blocked approval of a Congressional-style limit in Albany. If lawmakers want to be the highest paid in the nation, they must take a meaningful step to curb Albany’s corruption risk: No outside income for any elected official. New York’s elected officials cannot serve two masters.

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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