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Speaker Heastie: ‘Overwhelming’ evidence to raise pay in Albany

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx, applauds at the

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx, applauds at the end of a news conference on equal pay legislation at the state Capitol on Monday, April 27, 2015, in Albany. Credit: AP / Mike Groll

ALBANY — Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie Wednesday issued a lengthy case for substantial pay raises for lawmakers, who have been stuck at the same $79,500 base pay since 1999.

A panel of appointees from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and legislative leaders is considering raising that base pay to as much as $116,900 for the part-time jobs, which is more than any other state now pays its legislators. Only California, which pays a base salary of $100,113; and Pennsylvania, which pays a base of $85,339 exceeds New York’s current pay, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The Cuomo administration made its pitch for raises last month.

The leader of the Senate’s Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) which works in a coalition with the Senate’s Republican majority also told Newsday Wednesday that he supports a pay raise.

“Representing my constituents is a full-time job, one which I take very seriously and often dedicate myself to seven days a week,” said Sen. Jeff Klein (D-Bronx), who leads the IDC. “Public officials deserve a pay raise for the work that they do in their districts and in Albany.”

There was no immediate comment from Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport).

The letter released Wednesday by Heastie (D-Bronx) is the first formal pitch by legislative leaders to the state’s pay raise commission. The commission is scheduled to announce raises for lawmakers, statewide elected officials and top commissioners on Nov. 15, after the November elections, under a law approved by lawmakers and Cuomo.

“The evidence is overwhelming that a raise in compensation is warranted; indeed, it is long overdue,” Heastie stated. “Economic variables and public policy fully support a salary increase for statewide elected officials, executive officers, and legislators, just as these same considerations yielded an increase for the judiciary earlier this year.

Heastie noted that a University of Missouri political science professor previously testified that the buying power of the base salary has declined to $53,997, which is an especially difficult wage on which to live for lawmakers from New York City and Long Island because of the high cost of living. He also said “the complexity and demands of the position . . . have dramatically increased,” noting the need to negotiate and pass a $148 billion state budget and thousands of laws each year.

“A depressed salary will eventually discourage qualified people from pursuing those offices,” Heastie said, noting a higher salary could lead to more competitive political races.

Heastie didn’t identify how much of a raise he would suggest, although he noted housing costs increased 50 percent since the last raise and one cost of living index grows 2 percent a year.

Currently, in addition to the $79,500 base pay, most lawmakers receive per diem expenses of $172 when working in Albany in addition to stipends for leadership posts up to $40,000 a year for the head of the Senate and Assembly.

The pay raise commission is considering several proposals from its members, including one that would raise salaries as much as 47 percent. The part-time pay for legislators would rise to $116,900 and top commissioners’ pay would rise from $136,000 to $193,460. According to a transcript of the commission’s discussion, the governor’s pay would rise to as much as $263,000 from $179,000; and the salaries of Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli and Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul would rise to as much as $222,000 from $151,500 now.

Critics of a pay raise cite the string of corruption cases that have hit more than 30 officials over the last 10 years. Under the measure passed by the Legislature and Cuomo, raises could be effective on Jan. 1 without Cuomo or lawmakers needing to cast a vote.

Although Cuomo said he won’t comment until the commission announces its recommendation by Nov. 15, his budget director, Robert F. Mujica Jr., made the administration’s pitch Sept. 21 using charts that compare higher salaries for commissioners in other states.

“An increase in the salaries of these commissioner positions is warranted in order to maintain the talented public servants we currently have, and to be competitive in attracting the most talented individuals in the nation,” Mujica wrote.

Assembly Republican leader Brian Kolb (R-Canandaigua) is preparing his own recommendation to the commission, which sought comments from the Legislature in a letter dated Sept. 26. Kolb previously said a 47-percent raise seemed high.

Cuomo and the commission, appointed by the governor and legislative leaders, have said legislators will need to make their case if they expect to get a raise.

For years legislators have avoided the dicey political issue of voting to raise their pay amid a string of corruption scandals. A year ago Cuomo and legislative leaders created a commission that would collect testimony statewide on the issue and decide the issue.

Other top-paid legislatures include those in Michigan at $71,685; Massachusetts at $60,032 and New Jersey at $49,000 in base pay. Among the lowest paid state lawmakers are those in New Hampshire, who receive a base salary of $200 for a two-year session, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

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