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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

With LI picture this grim, Schmitt can't sell raises

Let's stipulate that Peter Schmitt, the Republican presiding officer of the Nassau County Legislature, had the right to sneak through a hefty pay hike - 42 percent - for himself, his deputy and the Democratic leader.

It might surprise many Long Islanders that Neal Lewis, a member of the commission that revised Nassau's charter between 1994 and 1996, said as much Tuesday.

Lewis was responsible for charter language that leaves lawmakers unable to boost their own salaries but only those of lawmakers elected to the next term. They can, it turns out, raise stipends for legislative leaders.

"We anticipated that the legislative leadership someday would make full-time salaries," Lewis said. "On the technicality of what's legal [with Schmitt's decision], I don't think that's an issue."

Lewis said that the commission also assumed that the legislative leader also "would have to make the case, and be prepared to keep making the case, that he was worth the increase."

What is an issue is this: Has Schmitt made that case? Especially in these brutal economic times?

Schmitt has not been majority leader long enough to make a compelling case. And the Democratic leadership before him was so weak, especially in its last two terms, that the voters can't be faulted for feeling that Nassau lawmakers ought to be paying them for the right to represent the public.

As for the full legislature itself, the assessment is even more dire. It wasn't so long ago that leadership battles and a penchant for rubber-stamping whatever was sent down by former County Executive Thomas Suozzi made the body a laughingstock.

It was also worth a chuckle whenever the Democratic-led Legislature tried to justify increases for lawmakers by comparing itself to the much harder-working members of the Suffolk County Legislature.

Schmitt, a Republican who holds a two-vote majority, has the opportunity to start afresh. He ought to have done that before giving himself a nice, hefty raise.

Still, just because Schmitt could increase the stipends - for himself, Deputy Majority Leader John Ciotti and Minority Leader Diane Yatauro, a Democrat - doesn't mean he should have.

Not when the unemployment rate on Long Island is so high. Or when the foreclosure rate shows little sign of slowing down.

Schmitt - and every other elected official on Long Island - would do well to take a look at "The Clock is Ticking on Long Island," a slap-your-face scary look at what Long Islanders are going through. This video's on the Web site of the Long Island Index and on Newsday.com, too.

Then maybe he - and officials in the Town of Hempstead, who recently gave themselves hefty raises, and every other steward of the public purse - will begin to get it.

Long Islanders are hurting.

So much so that church donations are down. Donations to charities are down. Trips to restaurants are down. For those lucky enough to still have jobs, raises are often drying up.

And yet taxes keep going up.

There's a disconnect between the reality of everyday life for Long Islanders, and for the officials they pay - and pay, and pay - to represent them.

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