The New York State Senate chamber.

The New York State Senate chamber. Credit: AP/Hans Pennink

Just before Christmas 2022, New York State boosted the salary of its legislators to $142,000 — highest in the nation. The message was clear. Members of the Senate and Assembly would be paid at a full-time rate. 

Presumably that would mean they'd devote full-time, year-round attention to their elected duties.

In the bargain, lawmakers approved a limit on outside, private income for themselves — adding to expectations that they'd be full-time public servants. Starting in January 2025, those legislators are barred from making more than $35,000 from side employment. Ten Republicans have sued in federal court to block the raise and the income cap. That case is pending.

Yet the legislative chambers still seem to be arranging their lives around the state’s part-time legislative tradition. And rather than expand, the session period is shrinking. For decades, the accepted deadline for finishing business was the Independence Day weekend. This year, they plan to leave the Capitol on Friday.

Why can’t the majority lawmakers summon up the attention span to stick around longer and slog through the state’s challenges? Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said last week: “We still have 5 1/2 more days, which in Albany time is a lifetime.” 

Not if you're carefully doing detailed work.

Primary day on June 25 motivates some lawmakers to get back early to their districts. But this year, most legislative incumbents do not face primary challenges and might not need to campaign. The “slow” post-session period should be a perfect time for committees and task forces to convene and fairly explore the topics that underlie current or future legislative and budget battles. That would address the usual excuse for failing to bring many important bills to a vote: a lack of time. 

Often, legislators say their time in the district is well spent delivering constituent services. If so, each legislator should show it — by agreeing to requests for their personal calendars and schedules. They need not stand on exceptions in the Freedom of Information Law.

Much remains unfinished this final session week. Landmark legislation to reduce plastic waste that results from packaging hangs in the balance. If lawmakers break Friday, the Suffolk County Legislature might not have time to pass the home-rule message necessary to extend the county's safety-enhancing red-light camera program before it expires.

Deadlines are funny things. They can be useful in prodding consensus among most of the state’s 213 legislators. But meeting arbitrary, excessively early deadlines can rush negotiations and result in careless drafting of bills — or provide an excuse to fob off tough decisions until next year.

Now that they're paid as full-timers, lawmakers should expand rather than shorten the time they spend both at the Capitol and in their district offices — to get difficult things done the right way.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.

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