While the $79,500 salary for members of the New York State Assembly and Senate is among the highest for legislators anywhere in the country, it is comparatively low for top talent in a costly state, especially in New York City and its suburbs. Some lawmakers seek additional income from outside jobs, which has led to conflicts of interest and, at times, corruption.
In an unusual arrangement that was part of the state budget deal approved earlier this year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Legislature created a committee to consider raises for legislators. The four-member committee — State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, former State Comptroller H. Carl McCall, City Comptroller Scott Stringer and former City Comptroller William Thompson Jr. — is supposed to issue its decision by Dec. 10. Unless the Legislature formally rejects it, their proposal will become law on Jan. 1.
With this small bit of Albany craftiness, state lawmakers may be able to get a raise without having to actually vote for one. Some lawmakers are reportedly lobbying for a $148,500 salary — matching the salary of the New York City Council, but about $24,000 more than required to compensate for inflation since their last raise 20 years ago.
But any raise must come hand-in-hand with genuine ethics reform. Any substantial raise needs to be accompanied by a ban on outside income — the higher salary implicitly recognizes that the position is a full-time job — and on the stipends for committee chairs known as “lulus,” which legislative leaders use to reward or punish members, consolidating power and making the lawmaking less democratic.
To see the corrupting potential of outside income, look at the former Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, who was convicted in May on extortion and money laundering charges. Prosecutors said two real estate developers gave Mr. Silver kickbacks through a law firm for backing legislation they wanted. Prosecutors also said he directed state grants to a doctor who in turn referred cancer patients to a law firm that gave Mr. Silver some of its fees. Mr. Silver performed no legal work for the firm, Weitz & Luxenberg, but was paid for referrals to it.
Some have argued that the language that created the committee does not allow it to do anything other than increase lawmaker pay. It is worth pausing here to marvel at the hubris of lawmakers and Mr. Cuomo, who have drawn up a panel with the power to give Albany a raise, but only an ambiguous ability to enact the reforms that should accompany it. So the committee needs to be bullish in its interpretation of the law, requiring reforms as part of the deal. Otherwise, the members of this committee will be lending their own names to another specious Albany back-room deal, with taxpayers footing the bill for years to come.
If lawmakers want to be paid as much as New York City Council members, they should be willing to act as responsibly. In 2016, city lawmakers took an open vote to increase members’ pay from $112,500, while banning most forms of outside income and lulus.
The pay committee should do one of two things: reject any pay raise unless the Legislature bans lulus and outside income before Dec. 10, or, in their final report on that day, set a pay raise along with those two bans. If lawmakers think the committee does not have the authority to do more than set pay, they can reject the report and do what they should have done to begin with, enact the changes themselves.
It’s the responsibility of the committee members, people of good reputation, to do the right thing rather than playing along with Albany’s games and accommodating anything less than what New Yorkers deserve.
Good government demands fair compensation for lawmakers, but only when they earn and keep the public’s trust.
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