State lawmakers expecting first pay bump in two decades

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie Somos 2018
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie Somos 2018
Jeff Coltin
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie at the 2018 Somos conference in Puerto Rico.

State lawmakers expecting first pay bump in two decades

With a new commission set to meet, some say limits on outside income a likely condition.
November 11, 2018

State lawmakers are expecting a long-awaited raise to their $79,500 base pay this year, with some saying that the change could come with strict limits on state senators and Assembly members making outside income.

An independent commission on legislative pay is reportedly meeting for the first time on Tuesday in Manhattan, with state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, SUNY Board of Trustees Chairman Carl McCall and CUNY Board of Trustees Chairman Bill Thompson sitting on the four-person panel. DiNapoli and Stringer are former assemblymen and McCall was a state senator in the 1970s.

A provision creating the commission was slipped into the state budget earlier this year, bypassing a different iteration of a pay raise commission that wasn’t scheduled to meet again till 2020. Many legislators, led by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, were furious that the last commission didn’t approve raises, accusing it of acting too politically and carrying water for Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who opposed pay raises and appointed the majority of members on the 2016 panel.

But some of the lawmakers who were in Puerto Rico for the annual Somos conference said they were feeling more comfortable with the new commission, whatever it decides.

“I will respect and accept whatever recommendation the commission makes,” Bronx Assemblyman Marcos Crespo told City & State on Saturday. But citing the “sacrifices and the energy that has to be put in” to being an elected official, “it’s time for a raise,” he said.

Brooklyn Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte also said she wouldn’t second-guess the commission. “We trust the process,” she said.

Bichotte was one of the few lawmakers who submitted testimony to the 2016 commission arguing for a pay raise. Then and now, many elected officials are skittish about publicly arguing for a raise when their pay is well above New York state’s $60,000 median income. But Bichotte argued that living in New York is expensive, and that the legislative salary was last raised in 1998, even as the cost of living has jumped.

Mark Weprin was then representing Queens in the Assembly. “I remember 20 years ago when they passed the last raise,” he told City & State. “Somebody said it’ll be 10 years before another one. I said, ‘Oh, it won’t be that long.’”

Echoing the comments of many others, Weprin fears that the five-figure pay is discouraging talented New Yorkers from running for office. “It’s hard to attract the best and the brightest when the pay hasn’t increased in 20 years,” he said.

But a pay raise actually could mean a loss in earnings for some lawmakers, since a ban on outside income may be considered by the commission as a condition on increasing the base salary. It’s an easy case to make for some lawmakers, and all the legislators that City & State spoke with said they would be fine with it. “I find it difficult that to imagine that any member would have the time to do the work that the community needs and serve, and to and still have time for outside income,” Bronx Assemblywoman Nathalia Fernandez said.

But others do find time to hold another job. Politico New York reported in 2016 that 56 legislators made more than $15,000 a year from outside work. Outside income varied sharply by race, with white lawmakers making an average of $35,000 – 13 times more than the average black legislator.

New York City Council members voted to boost their own salaries from $112,500 to nearly $150,000 in 2016, but banned lawmakers from receiving outside income, which can take legislators’ focus away from their jobs and poses potential conflicts of interest. Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was convicted on corruption charges related to his second job at a private law firm.

New York already has the third-highest legislative salaries in country, trailing just California and Pennsylvania, but Working Families Party State Director Bill Lipton told City & State Saturday that New York has nothing to be ashamed of, blaming Republican “anti-government rhetoric” for legislators’ low pay nationally.

“We need to treat legislators like respected public servants,” he said. “They work hard and they need to be paid fairly. These are full time jobs.”

Multiple lawmakers told City & State the Assembly Black, Puerto Rican Hispanic and Asian Caucus had a brief discussion about the potential pay raise at a recent meeting. But elected officials said it wasn’t a hot topic of conversation at the Somos conference, since there is so little information – or even rumors – available about the commission. That’s despite lawmaker pay being a hot topic nationally, after Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told The New York Times last week she was struggling to make it until her first congressional paycheck came in.

Another newly-elected Queens lawmaker, Assemblywoman-elect Catalina Cruz, told City & State at Somos that she was hoping legislators would get a raise. “I’d like to earn enough to be able to pay my rent and student loans!” she said. “But I’m going to work just as hard either way.”

Jeff Coltin
is a senior reporter at City & State. He covers New York City Hall.