State lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo are hoping the public can be easily fooled by a simple magic trick.
Concentrate on what this hand is doing so you don’t think about what the other hand is doing.
This political sleight is at work now, as state officials attempt to fool the public into going along with a pay raise for state lawmakers in exchange for making them full-time and limiting or prohibiting them from earning income outside their legislative pay.
Don’t let them trick you into thinking this is a comparable exchange, that it will make the legislative body more productive, or that it will have any impact on reducing corruption in state government. This is simply a trick to convince taxpayers into being OK with the raises.
Let’s break it down one step at a time.
DO WE NEED A FULL-TIME LEGISLATURE?
First, does the Legislature really need to be full-time, in the real sense of the word?
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), New York is considered one of only four full-time state legislatures in the country. But is it really?
Right now, legislators meet in Albany for less than six months a year, from January to mid-June. Out of that time, they’re only in actual session for 60 days. Yet during that time, they always manage to pass a state budget and work up all the legislation for a given year. Outside of session, their job is mostly formulating legislation and doing constituent services, with staff handling a lot of the constituent work. The rest of the year, they’re working at other jobs not related to their legislative duties, campaigning for re-election and posing for pictures, marching in parades and attending ribbon cuttings.
Would adding six months to the session and forcing lawmakers to be in their offices every day, all year-round, make state government more effective and productive?
And would that extra time justify paying them each a base salary of $90,000 to $125,000 a year, as has been suggested?
OUTSIDE INTERESTS ARE A BENEFIT
Another argument for limiting outside income is that it would make the Legislature more effective.
Really? Does anyone think having 213 full-time professional politicians in office is what New York is missing?
Many lawmakers bring real-world experience from their non-legislative lives into the job, which helps them stay in touch with their constituents and identify with their needs.
About 23 percent according to a 2015 NCSL survey, are practicing lawyers. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Lawmakers do, after all, make laws, and having a working legal understanding of contracts, business regulations and criminal justice is very valuable in a legislator.
Being working lawyers dealing with actual clients also keeps their skills and knowledge fresh, and helps them be on top of the legal issues faced by their constituents.
Some lawmakers, like Sen. George Amedore, run a construction business, which helps him understand first-hand the challenges faced by businesses regarding taxes, regulations and hiring qualified workers. Brooklyn Sen. Martin Golden is a real estate developer. Some, like Brooklyn Sen. Simcha Felder and others, are educators. Assemblyman Stephen Hawley owns an insurance agency in Batavia. Assemblyman John McDonald of Cohoes runs a pharmacy. Others work in marketing and consulting and write books.
These are backgrounds that are valuable to New York residents.
Forcing those types of individuals to choose between being a full-time legislator and splitting their time between their legislative and outside work might force some to quit and discourage others from running — even with a pay raise.
How does that help New Yorkers get better legislation?
DOES THE PAY DETER GOOD CANDIDATES?
One could argue that the current salary discourages qualified individuals from running for state office. That’s debatable. Successful people are either going to keep trying to get wealthy or they’re not going to let a salary discourage them from seeking public office. Some run for power, influence, prestige and opportunity to move up, not the pay.
There actually was an unusual amount of turnover in the Legislature this year, as evidenced by Democrats taking control of the state Senate. But pay wasn’t the reason cited by those who chose not to run this year. Some incumbents sought other positions like judgeships, while others retired, quit to devote more time to business interests and their families, or faced criminal charges. And when they announced they were leaving, there were plenty of people interested in taking their place.
Even with the departures, all but a handful of the 213 incumbents sought re-election. If the pay was so bad, would so many be so anxious to re-up?
WOULD IT END CORRUPTION?
The other presumption about increasing the salary and limiting lawmakers from earning outside income is that it will reduce corruption, because they’ll be less tempted by outside money and will have fewer conflicts of interest.
That seems to make sense, until it doesn’t.
First, who is more likely to be tempted to use his or her position in government to make money -- someone with a lucrative side business or someone whose income is strictly limited by legislative pay? Yes, there is the potential for conflicts in legislating while also doing business with your own clients and customers. But conflicts also exist with campaign contributors, business owners, land developers, lobbyists, financiers, close friends and family members who might have nothing at all to do with a lawmaker’s second profession.
The most effective way to reduce corruption is by removing the opportunities that lead to corruption and eliminating the protections that allow corruption to fester.
To reduce the amount of power a lawmaker can accumulate once in office, for example, the Legislature can impose term limits on leadership posts and committee chairmanships.
Sheldon Silver gained his power not just through his law firm contacts, but through the amount of unchecked power he was able to accumulate as the longtime Assembly speaker. He also was able to use that power to protect other corrupt and unethical politicians he favored.
Not only will limits on leadership terms prevent lawmakers from building large power bases over time, it will allow lawmakers with different approaches and ideas to provide fresh input into legislation and governing.
Another way to reduce corruption is to improve transparency.
Force lawmakers to disclose more information about their incomes and outside dealings, including client lists, to discourage them from favoring certain individuals over others and to help the public identify potential conflicts. If you run for government office, your business dealings and income should be an open book.
Force lawmakers convicted of crimes to forfeit all state benefits they’ve accrued. That should keep many from being tempted.
And pass campaign finance reform to prevent the big money from getting to lawmakers in the first place.
The problem with the quality of the Legislature and the corruption isn’t the pay. It’s everything else.
This effort to raise legislative pay in exchange for limiting outside income is just a ruse.
We won’t get better government because of it. We’ll just be paying more for it.
And don’t we pay enough already?