Blair Horner: Pay Raises For State Lawmakers

Dec 3, 2018

Last week, a panel charged with making decisions on the compensation levels for state legislators and top agency officials held two public hearings. The idea of jacking up public officials’ salaries is as popular as a skunk at an outdoor party.

What makes the conversation worse, however, is the staggering number of controversies and scandals that have plagued the Capitol in recent years and the refusal by the state’s political leadership to address it.

Currently, New York pays its state elected officials well in comparison to other states: New York’s governor is the third highest paid state executive and lawmakers get the third highest base salary of any legislature. In addition, the vast majority of lawmakers are allowed to receive stipends on top of their base pay. Thus, the “salary” of most lawmakers is considerably higher than the base salary of $79,500.

A simple Consumer Price Index (CPI) adjustment going back to the 1999 pay raise would boost legislative salaries to over $122,364. However, CPI alone does not adequately capture how well the average New Yorker has fared.

An earlier pay raise panel in New York City noted that a “deeper analysis uncovered that New Yorkers’ median household income in the same time period rose only 14.02 percent,” less than the amount it would have increased if it kept up with the consumer index.

In addition to most current legislators being paid far more than the base salary, elected officials can accept outside income. The scandals that toppled the previous legislative leaders have highlighted the problems with allowing lawmakers to serve two masters.

Over the past eighteen years, over 30 New York State elected officials have been sanctioned for some misconduct.

So, what’s the argument for an increase in compensation?

The argument stems from the fact that state elected officials haven’t had a pay increase in nearly 20 years. And when that decision was made, then-Governor Pataki linked his approval of pay increases to non-related policy changes—that is, horse trading in exchange for lawmakers’ pay.

This time around, the governor and the legislature agreed to create a compensation panel to independently review compensation levels. The panel has the power to set appropriate compensation rates without additional legislative approval.

The panel idea makes sense – lawmakers shouldn’t have to face linkages between appropriate pay and policies advanced by the governor and vice versa. But given Albany’s unending series of political scandals, how will a pay raise sit with the public who must pay for it? 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’s modern political history? 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 panel 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.

Recognizing this, the enacting legislation connects any phased-in increase in compensation to approval of a “timely” legislative budget and “performance.” “Timely” is not defined but understood to be tied to the state’s fiscal year, which starts April 1st; “performance” on the other hand is not defined and is subject to interpretation.

Thus, if there are any increases in compensation, it must be linked to improvements in the “performance of the executive and legislature” by tying any such changes to measures to reduce the risk of corruption in state government.

Real corruption-busting measures should include:

  1. independent oversight of agency contracting and better disclosures,
  2. independent oversight of ethics administration and enforcement,
  3. restricting outside income for lawmakers and members of the executive branch,
  4. restricting campaign contributions from those seeking or receiving contracts,
  5. more disclosures for those who “bundle” campaign contributions,
  6. new changes to the state’s campaign financing system – such as limits on LLCs and a voluntary system of public financing.

Fixing what ails Albany – namely appropriate responses to the incredible number of controversies, scandals, and convictions – is an important goal, the type of “performance” that New Yorkers deserve.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

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