New Yorkers should be against any pay raises for Albany lawmakers not because they don't deserve them (although they don't) or because they didn't earn them (although they didn't). Our fellow state residents should be against the pay increases because lawmakers didn't ask us first.
The state constitution only allows for one session of the legislature to vote for an increase in salary for the next session. But just because legislators can do it, doesn't mean they should. There is a small window every two years just after an election in November and just before the start of the next session in January that allows for the legislature to legally vote itself a raise without being subject to the voters for the other two years.
Our current calendar is in that small window right now -- and Albany lawmakers are in serious talks to take advantage of it.
Theoretically, we shouldn't necessarily be against a pay increase for our elected representatives. Better salaries for those who write our state laws -- coupled with a limit on their outside employment activities, of course -- might make for better representation and more competitors willing to throw hats into the ring for more competitive elections. In addition, the last time a raise was approved by the Empire State's legislature and governor, as required, was in 1999. Today, 213 lawmakers earn a base salary of $79,500, though many also draw stipends of $9,000 to $41,000 for leadership positions or committee chairmanships.
Yet before we give them more money, let's look at what they are already getting paid to do or, more accurately, not do.
The 2014 calendar only called for the State Senate to meet for 59 days and the Assembly to meet for 61 days. The $79,500 annual salary of these part-time Albany lawmakers (not including travel and other stipends) makes the 213 state legislators the third highest paid in the country. Only California and Pennsylvania pay their state lawmakers more.
Citizens should be the first line of defense against the potential of overreaching by politicians -- not be an afterthought. The debate being held in New York for increased compensation, if there is one, is among a select few of those who wield power and stand to personally gain from its passage. The conversation wasn't introduced to voters before an election but, instead, sprung as a post-election "gotcha."
Yet the reason for the sneaky oversight of leaving we, the people, out of the discussion is obvious: Why would legislators submit a controversial action for judgment of the voters if the law doesn't require them to do so? "Because it's the right thing to do," is not a sentence we hear much out of Albany. If we begin by expecting them to do the right thing, maybe they will start to consider the prospect.
"Show me the money!" demanded Eric Adams, then a state senator, from the floor of Albany's upper house in December of 2007. The season of giving upon them, that legislature was also considering being charitable toward its members with a holiday gift courtesy of the taxpayers in the form of a pay raise. Although a salary increase was not approved that year -- and Adams has since become Brooklyn borough president -- the sentiment has remained.
If state lawmakers deserve a raise, they should make their case directly to -- not around -- the taxpayers who would bear the burden of paying for it. "Those who pay are the masters of those who are paid," New Yorker Alexander Hamilton said in 1787. The action being considered in Albany today would invert this logic.
Let's reject the raises . . . if we're asked.