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Albany Lawmakers May Get Their First Raise in 20 Years. Do They Deserve One?

Posted December 9, 2018 4:59 p.m. EST

Considering the rotten reputation of Albany, New York, the idea of giving New York’s 213 elected lawmakers a raise is a tough sell. On Thursday, they took a giant step toward that goal when a four-person commission recommended that lawmakers get a hefty raise: a $30,500 hike next year, bringing their base pay to $110,000. Two more raises of $10,000 per year will follow in 2020 and 2021.

Albany’s elected officials currently make $79,500 a year, before various perks and stipends, a salary that has not budged in nearly 20 years, when Gov. George E. Pataki approved a salary hike in exchange for the creation of charter schools in the state. That was in 1998.

If adopted — the commission is set to issue a final report by Monday — the state’s lawmakers would be on pace to receive the largest base salaries of any state’s elected officials, surpassing California.

In exchange, the lawmakers will see restrictions on legislative stipends and outside income.

Albany’s legislators have been agitating for a raise for years, including in 2016 when an earlier commission (Albany loves a good commission) effectively shot down a pay hike after representatives of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo balked at backing one.

This time around, lawmakers seem poised to get the six-figure salary they feel they so richly deserve. Here is a primer on the parameters of that battle for more pay.

Why has the pay raise been such a heavy lift?

The concept of lawmakers giving themselves more money always comes with baggage, but in the case of Albany, it is made even more difficult by two factors, neither of which is completely fair but both of which are potent arguments.

The first is the Capitol’s well-established reputation for sleaze: When Cuomo ran for governor in 2010, he campaigned heavily on a promise to address corruption and bring real ethics reform. Despite that vow, Cuomo has presided over a series of corruption scandals, including inside the governor’s inner circle, as well as more sordid reports of sexual harassment, groping and other ugly behavior.

And while those accused make up a tiny fraction of the state Senate and Assembly, their transgressions have helped tarnish Albany’s public reputation and make it very difficult to justify a raise.

The second factor comes down to a single phrase that torments lawmakers in many negotiations: part time. The state Legislature meets only part of the year (January to June) and thus is labeled part time, like a teenage pizza shop employee or a Little League umpire. Lawmakers say the part-time designation is inaccurate considering the regular work they do back in their districts; many also note that they travel back and forth to Albany from hundreds of miles away, in often inclement weather, to do the people’s business.

Still, New York lawmakers currently make more than their counterparts in every state but California and Pennsylvania.

So what made the difference this time?

For all the objections from editorial boards, there seemed to be real consensus in many quarters that $79,500 was too low, particularly for the dozens of legislators who hail from New York City and its expensive suburbs.

Faced with the same economic realities, the New York City Council voted itself a whopping $36,000 raise in 2016, bringing its base pay to $148,500. (Not surprisingly, several state lawmakers have subsequently decided to abandon Albany to become City Council members.)

The City Council only got its raise after embracing restrictions on outside income and an end to extra pay for committee work, a pay-padding tradition known as “lulus,” shorthand for payment in lieu of salary.

The compensation commission closely followed the council model: It voted to curtail lawmakers’ outside income to 15 percent of their salary, and it moved to eliminate the lulus, which range from $9,000 to $34,000 a year. Those stipends have historically been used by the ruling party to reward its members, often for very little effort. Many committee meetings in Albany are ill-attended affairs, with most members missing, and agendas that involve little more than rubber-stamping bills headed for the legislative chambers.

What do you mean by outside income? Like lawn work?

No. Many of the state’s lawmakers hold second jobs, ranging from predictable professions like lawyering to careers offering financial advice and funeral services. (Death and taxes, indeed.)

Some lawmakers more than double their current legislative salaries through outside work; if outside income were to be capped at 15 percent, the pay-raise changes could actually cost some legislators money. Outside jobs have also led to ethical and legal problems, including accusations of conflicts of interest and other criminal activity, most famously in the case of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. In 2015, Silver was arrested and charged with federal corruption charges related to nearly $4 million in payoffs. The schemes involved Silver arranging grants and taking official actions in exchange for fees to Silver through two law firms he was associated with. He was convicted of the charges for a second time in May, and is awaiting sentencing.

How did the commission decide?

The four members of the commission are all numbers guys: the New York City comptroller, Scott Stringer; the state comptroller, Thomas DiNapoli; and two former comptrollers, William Thompson Jr. and H. Carl McCall. They have the power, thanks to a law passed as part of last year’s budget, to authorize a raise, with no additional legislative action. Bans on income or other measures, however, may require additional bills to be passed.

The panel also recommended a salary increase for the governor, bringing his pay to $250,000 by 2021; that would make Cuomo the highest-paid governor in the country. That recommendation is not binding and would need to be approved by a joint resolution of the Senate and Assembly.

After emerging from a closed-door executive session meeting Thursday afternoon, the commissioners announced the framework of their recommendations. Thompson said the two decades of frozen salaries was unfair and “not the right thing.”

Even so, McCall recognized that the public would have to be persuaded that the Legislature truly deserved a pay increase. “There’s no question that, over time, the Legislature has not always lived up to its full opportunities to convince the public that it is a hardworking, conscientious, honest organization,” he said. How did they come up with the number?

It had been a long time since a raise, and groups like the New York Public Interest Research Group had estimated that simply giving the lawmakers an increase based on the Consumer Price Index would increase legislative salaries to a little more than $122,000. The actual recommendation of $130,000, by 2021, would bring lawmakers up to par with the current mean salary of economists in the state, according to the state Department of Labor.

And while that might seem like a lot to pay for part-time work — though lawmakers say that is a million-dollar misnomer — even those devoted to better government say it is time for a raise.

“No one should go more than 20 years without a pay increase,” said Blair Horner, executive director of NYPIRG, before the recommendation was announced.

Horner noted that the state still needed better ethics laws, urging the commission to take up a “comprehensive package of corruption-busting measures,” including increased oversight of state contracts, hiring a new ethics watchdog, lowering campaign contribution limits and eliminating the LLC loophole, which allows limited liability companies to pour almost unlimited funds into campaigns.

“If there’s going to be a change in compensation,” Horner said, “it’s got to be based on cleaning out the stables in Albany.”