The Case For A Pay Raise In Albany

The Case For A Pay Raise In Albany

The Case For A Pay Raise In Albany
December 11, 2014

True story: A newly elected state legislator was seeking the guidance of a sitting lawmaker about transitioning to Albany when the conversation turned serious: “What’s your second job?” asked the incoming freshman. 

The veteran’s response—that he was a full-timer with no outside income—caused the newbie to recoil in shock: How did he support himself? After all, $79,500 a year was not nearly enough to take care of a family, carry a mortgage, make car payments, and cover all of the other expenses that were already baked into the cake of this person’s life. 

Doubtless, some of you reading this anecdote will have no sympathy for the freshman, but as a father in my mid-30s living in as expensive a city as New York, I do. The notion that lawmakers should endure economic hardship so their experience will more closely align with those of their constituents in need may sound like poetic justice, but in reality the current salary of members of the Legislature is one of the principal catalysts for the deplorable epidemic of corruption that infects our state capital. 

We cannot ignore human nature—or at least the nature that our current crop of legislators has exhibited. There is a reason beyond pure greed and a gross sense of entitlement that former Bronx Assemblyman Eric Stevenson salivated when he was offered an envelope stuffed with $10,000 in cash: He probably needed the dough. 

I am not excusing Stevenson’s actions, or those of the raft of other elected officials in recent years who have trampled on the public trust by accepting bribes. My point is that while we so often talk about raising teacher salaries so that we can lure the best possible applicants to educate our children, why do we not apply this same standard to attracting the best people to represent us in the state Legislature? 

While $79,500 may be a decent living in many parts of New York, in places like the five boroughs, Westchester, Long Island and others it is not a great deal more that the median household income. As a result, for our downstate legislators we have created the conditions for largely three types of people to represent us: the independently wealthy or those married to individuals who can support them; part-time legislators whose outside income cannot be verified as to conflicts of interest; and bottom feeders and machine hacks who are either unqualified for more lucrative employment or seeking to leverage their positions for personal gain. (These are the folks that generally wind up indicted.) There are notable exceptions, of course, but those virtuous, self-sacrificing individuals are just that—exceptions. 

With state lawmakers’ salaries at their current level, how can we expect the standouts in so many professional fields, our top graduates—most of whom are carrying the weight of colossal student loans—and even our leading activists (I’m willing to bet if you pulled the 990s of most nonprofits you’d find their executive directors make more than $79K), to turn down paychecks commensurate with their talents, and compromise their fiscal stability in exchange for the often thankless privilege of serving in the Legislature? 

Personally, I would be more than willing to support state lawmakers raising their salaries to bring them in line with what New York City Council members make ($112,500). I would even be receptive to an increase that more closely aligned their pay with that of members of Congress ($174,000). But any such hike has to come in conjunction with a new set of rules designed to radically diminish the temptations of corruption and take major steps toward restoring the public trust. 

Here are my conditions: the elimination of per diems—a system that the Moreland Commission revealed is rife with abuse; no lulus for committee chairs—a carrot the leaders of the Legislature exploit to infringe upon their members’ independence—and most important, requiring that the only job our lawmakers are allowed to have is the one they were elected to do. 

Though ideally I would also like to do away with outside income altogether, I am willing to budge on that point. I have no objections, for instance, to a member of the Legislature teaching a course or receiving compensation for writing a book (as long as it’s better than the usual torturous fare our politicians turn out). However, any outside income must be subjected to the most robust of disclosure requirements—not like the loophole-laden system now in place—so that the public can clearly see that the monies received for such work does not pose a conflict of interest. 

Let’s be honest: Many of our state lawmakers have not earned a pay raise on the basis of an objective evaluation of the quality of their work. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need to increase the salary members of the Legislature are paid if we want to populate its chambers with lawmakers who are worthy of a bigger paycheck. 

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Morgan Pehme
20210616