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Pay commission considers raises for lawmakers

Posted by Karen DeWitt on

A commission is considering granting as much as a 47% pay raise for state lawmakers, and the proposal is generating some backlash, including, from Governor Andrew Cuomo.

The idea of raising state lawmakers pay by nearly 50% comes at a time when dozens of Senators and Assembly members have been indicted, arrested, and jailed for corruption, including the two former legislative leaders, who are both facing prison time.

Lawmakers have not seen a salary increase since 1999, and any proposals for pay hikes, even to just keep up with inflation, have stagnated over years of record late budgets, and now, a corruption crime wave.

The commission was created to try to take the politics out of the issue. It calculates that the base pay of $79,500 a year for legislators would increase to around $113,000 a year, if the rising consumer price index over the past 17 years is factored in.

The commission does not have to issue any decision until November 15th, a week after Election Day.

But now Governor Andrew Cuomo says lawmakers need to speak up and reveal to voters before November 8th whether or not they think they deserve a 47% pay raise.

“They’re not showing up at the hearings,” said Cuomo, who said they don’t want to say anything during the campaign.

“If you think you deserve a raise say ‘I deserve a raise’,” Cuomo said. 

Cuomo backs a raise for his state agency commissioners.  He says the current rate is not competitive and hinders his ability to recruit top candidates.

“So I’ll go first, I’m going to argue to the commission that we need to pay commissioners more to get top flight people,” Cuomo said.

The governor did not name a figure for a salary increase. But if his commissioners were granted a raise consistent with the rate of inflation since 1999, they would receive around $200,000 a year. The governor would also see a pay hike to that amount, though Cuomo has never argued that he personally needs a raise. 

Legislators are not required to make any comments to the pay commission in order for any raises to go forward. A spokesman for the State Senate Majority Party Republicans did not want to comment on the governor’s remarks. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Democrat, said in a statement that members of the legislature “work hard and deserve a raise”, which he says is long “overdue”.  Heastie says it’s up to the Commission, not lawmakers, to decide whether the pay should be increased, and he says the commission should be allowed to do its work.

The pay commission has sought public comment. All 25 emails on its website are against the proposal, with some saying the idea is “nuts”, and “ridiculous” and asking “are you out of your minds?”

Government reform groups, however, are in favor of raising lawmakers’ pay, as long as some changes are made.  Susan Lerner, with Common Cause, testified at a hearing in the spring.

“We are very strong supporters of the idea of a pay raise,” she told the commission.

But Lerner says any pay raise needs to be accompanied by reforms. She says outside income by legislators should be banned, or severely restricted. Abuse of outside income factored heavily in the corruption convictions of the two former legislative leaders.  Lerner says if the pay is raised to $113,000 a year or more, then all of the extra stipends given to committee chairs and for leadership posts should also be eliminated. She says, right now they are given out for political reasons to “reward loyal favorites” and to punish those “who show a certain degree of independence”.

Lerner says the stipend reward system has also led to the proliferation of too many unnecessary committees.

Governor Cuomo has three of the seven appointees on the pay commission. The Senate and Assembly have just one appointee each. The chief judge of the state has two. So Cuomo does have more influence, potentially, to sway the commission’s decision on whether to grant the salary increases, or not.

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