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Foss: Legislators still don't deserve a raise

Foss: Legislators still don't deserve a raise

Foss: Legislators still don't deserve a raise
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has come out in favor of a pay raise for state lawmakers.
Photographer: JEENAH MOON/THE NEW YORK TIMES

It doesn't matter whether you or I think giving New York's legislators a pay raise is a good idea. 

What matters is what Gov. Andrew Cuomo thinks. 

And he thinks it's a good idea.

"They come to Albany, they're away from their family for days on end, they make tremendous sacrifices," the governor said earlier this month on The Capitol Pressroom. "And I know it's not popular to say, but I believe they deserve a raise. I believe there should be reforms also, but I do believe they deserve a raise." 

Well, there you have it. 

Cuomo has given legislative pay raises his stamp of approval, which means it's only a matter of time before the four-member, all-male New York State Compensation Committee signs off on them. 

The group will hold a public hearing in Albany on Wednesday, but the decision on whether to grant lawmakers a pay raise has likely been made. Which leaves us with the big, as-yet-to-be-answered question: How big will they be? 

My longstanding position is that the Legislature doesn't deserve a raise

A succession of lawmakers have been tried, convicted and sentenced to prison for a variety of misdeeds, but the Legislature has steadfastly refused to address the corruption in its midst. Legislators should enact meaningful ethics reforms, and then make the case that they deserve a salary bump. 

Instead, the public is being treated to a lot of earnest chatter about how hard legislators work, how they're underpaid and how a more generous base salary will attract a better pool of legislators. 

This is nonsense, for a number of reasons. 

For one thing, New York's lawmakers are already among the highest paid in America, earning $79,500, second only to legislators in Pennsylvania and California. In addition, some of New York's legislators receive generous of stipends of between $9,000 and $41,500 for leadership positions or committee chairmanships. 

In short, New York's legislators are doing perfectly fine -- better than the average lawmaker and better than the average American. 

Cuomo has suggested that legislative jobs should be full time and that there should be restrictions on lawmakers' ability to have outside income.

The thinking, I suppose, is that making the Legislature go full time would justify their higher pay, and it's a line of thinking that's tough to argue with. 

But it ignores the larger question of whether voters really want or need a full-time Legislature, or whether a full-time Legislature is in the best interests of the electorate. 

I'm not convinced that it is, and my feeling is that New Yorkers haven't had much of an opportunity to express their thoughts on what they want their state Legislature to look like. 

That's by design, of course. 

In the past, lawmakers voted for their own raises, which helped keep their salaries in check.

Legislative pay increases are unpopular, and lawmakers generally balk at enraging their constituents. 

What the New York State Compensation Committee does is shift the burden of giving legislative raises from the Legislature to a small group of politically connected appointees: state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, who is himself up for a raise; State University of New York Board of Trustees Chairman H. Carl McCall; City University of New York board Chairman William Thompson; and New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer. 

It's a flawed, sneaky, un-democratic process, and it minimizes both public input and the inevitable public backlash.

By the time most New Yorkers realize legislative pay raises were on the table, the committee will have done its work.  

I would love to hear legislators make the case for why they deserve a raise. 

But they're not going to do it. 

That alone should kill the idea of legislative pay increases for at least another two years. 

But it won't. 

Don't be surprised if, come January, legislators are earning more money, whether they deserve to or not. 

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper's.                   

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