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Albany legislators should vote if they want a pay raise

Senators meet in the Senate Chamber at the

Senators meet in the Senate Chamber at the Capitol on the opening day of the legislative session on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2016, in Albany, N.Y. Credit: AP / Mike Groll

A state commission on Tuesday killed a pay raise for state legislators. That’s good.

It’s not that lawmakers don’t deserve a salary increase. They do. But not from a commission created to give them a bump without them having to approve it — the kind of cynical ploy we’ve seen so often in Albany. If lawmakers want a pay hike, they should vote on it, as they have before. The deadline is year’s end for members of the Assembly and Senate to pass a salary increase for the two-year session beginning in January. Otherwise, the next opportunity to do so is two years down the road.

That’s pressure, and it should force the State Legislature to return to Albany for a special session and finally do it the right way. Also trapped in this political dance are the commissioners and executive department heads who oversee thousands of employees and billion-dollar budgets. They also need raises so we can recruit good people to government.

Legislators have not had raises since 1999. Their base pay is $79,500. Their posts are defined as part-time jobs, but in reality they’re more time-consuming. Many lawmakers — more than three-quarters, by one analysis — also get extra pay for leadership roles, as much as $41,500 for the Assembly speaker and Senate majority leader. All get guaranteed pensions and, after 10 years on the job, qualify for retiree health benefits for which the state pays on average 88 percent of the premium. And they get $172 per day for expenses while they’re in Albany. Not a bad deal overall.

But it’s also true that much of the corruption on display in indictments and courtrooms across the state has revolved around the money legislators earn in their outside jobs. That’s where money often is spent by those seeking to buy influence. So any pay raise must come as part of a deal to crack down on these temptations. Here’s how the deal should work:

Legislators should vote on any raises

First, legislators should be required to vote on any raise. That’s called accountability. The raise should be big enough to justify designating the legislature as a full-time job. The most commonly cited base figure is $116,900, the product of the rate of inflation since 1999. That’s a nice paycheck, and it would attract talented people to public service. Then the legislature must become a full-time body by returning to Albany after its traditional end in June to conduct hearings on important issues and to debate legislation not yet fully vetted — novel concepts, to be sure.

Most important, the raise should be tied to a ban or limit on outside income. We prefer a ban, but a limit along the lines of the Congressional model — members’ outside earnings cannot exceed 15 percent of their Congressional salary — would work, too, and probably is more feasible. There should be strict penalties for violating the cap.

An increasing number of lawmakers see the wisdom of income limits, judging from their pre-election endorsement interviews with the Newsday editorial board. They’re right. New Yorkers are disgusted with seeing their leaders in handcuffs on early-morning perp walks. If public officials also have full-time private incomes, how do we know when they are serving the public and when they are not? Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and legislature leaders created the commission as part of midnight budget negotiations in 2015 to give everyone a blame-free pay raise. In return, he hoped to get the outside income ban and other ethics reforms. When that failed, his appointees to the commission killed the pay hike.

The tasks of lawmakers are critical. They should be compensated fairly. And if they are, they should assure the public that the people’s business is the only focus of their attention. — The editorial board


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