ALBANY BUREAU CHIEF
ALBANY — More than three-dozen state lawmakers have faced ethics woes since 2000.
New York has one of the worst business climates in the country, and the state Legislature already is the third highest paid in the nation for what is technically a part-time job.
Now some state lawmakers want a raise.
Talks are heating up about a potential pay raise for the 213 state legislators before the year ends. Supporters say it’s needed; opponents say it’s not.
Proponents said that the $79,500 base salary hasn’t changed since 1999, and the salary is low for lawmakers who live in New York City and its suburbs — where the cost of living is much higher than the rest of the state. The salary, which can be boosted by leadership posts, has discouraged people from getting into public office and perhaps fueled corruption, backers said.
Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Morelle, D-Irondequoit, said he has “no complaints” about his salary, but understands why some downstate lawmakers need it. Being a state lawmaker “shouldn’t be a huge financial sacrifice,” Morelle said. “And I think a number of young people and a number of talented people left simply because they can’t afford it any more.”
Legislative leaders said they support a pay increase, and they are expected to negotiate with Gov. Andrew Cuomo on whether a deal can be reached before year’s end.
Some lawmakers said they would oppose a raise, saying that families across the state are struggling with low pay and job losses. New York’s median household income is $57,683.
“People upstate are hurting. They’d like to have a job, even,” said Assemblyman Kieran Lalor, R-Fishkill, Dutchess County. “I don’t think we should be talking about a pay raise.”
Lawmakers are able to earn outside income. And more than half of them earned some outside income in 2012, according to a review last year by the New York Public Interest Group. The review found that lawmakers’ household income in 2012 averaged between $178,140 and $237,941; the median was between $137,000 and $172,000. Under New York state’s Constitution, lawmakers can’t give themselves a pay raise. So they would need to do it this year for the Legislature that was elected in November and is seated in January. Otherwise, they would have to wait another two years.
The talk in Albany is that Cuomo and legislative leaders could hash out a broader package that would make a pay increase more palatable to the public — such as also increasing the minimum wage or reforms to business taxes.
Cuomo, whose salary is set at $179,000, has wanted higher pay for his commissioners, whose pay has been frozen along with that of legislators. He has said over the years that he’s had difficulty recruiting top officials because of the pay, and some deputies make more than their bosses. State law sets commissioner pay at up to $136,000.
Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos, RNassau County, said he’s open to discussing a pay raise, but ruled out some proposals for a special session — such as boosting the minimum wage, giving illegal immigrants tuition assistance called the Dream Act or publicly financing political campaigns. There’s also talk about an aid package to help Buffalo after major snowstorms in recent days. “There will be a discussion, I’m sure, about it,” Skelos said Nov. 17 in Albany. “We’re not doing the Dream Act, we’re not doing minimum wage, we’re not doing taxpayer financing. If there are other reforms that we can come up with, then I’m for it.”
Skelos receives his $79,500 base pay and $41,500 for being Senate leader — the same as Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan. Morelle gets $34,500 for his top leadership post. California pays its state lawmakers $90,526 a year, while Pennsylvania pays $84,012 a year. So New York ranks third in the nation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. New York is also the third most populous state in the country. New York’s Legislature meets for six months each year, unlike some states. In Texas, for example, the state Legislature only meets every other year. New York lawmakers say they have constituent work in their districts that makes it a fulltime job.
New York lawmakers get their base pay and $172 for each day they spend at the Capitol for food and lodging. If they are in leadership posts, they can get an annual stipend between $9,000 and $41,500. In the Senate, the 63 members all get at least $9,000 for leadership positions, and so do all Assembly Republicans — even though they are in the minority. Some Assembly Democrats, because they have twice as many members than Republicans, don’t get a leadership boost. Some lawmakers have been accused of abusing the per-diem system and putting in for its $172 a day when they are not in Albany. Assemblyman William Scarborough, DQueens, was charged in state and federal court on Oct. 1, in part on charges that he allegedly put in for per diems on days he wasn’t at the Capitol. Some legislators said the per-diem system — which currently doesn’t require lawmakers to submit receipts — could be reformed as part of any pay raise. Assemblyman Thomas Abinanti, D-Greenburgh, Westchester County, said a pay raise would lead to more competitive elections and better candidates. Presently, at least downstate, lawmakers generally need to have outside income, a higherearning spouse or be retired to serve in the state Legislature, he said. Abinanti said that if the pay were raised this year, the Legislature should set up a commission to address future raises. He said the pay should be increased to somewhere between what the New York City Council receives, which is $112,500 a year, and what members of Congress get, which is $174,000 a year. “If we want to encourage people, we must peg the pay to the demand of the office and the types of people we want to run for it,” said Abinanti, who doesn’t get a stipend. The pay was last increased after the legislative elections in 1998, during the administration of Gov. George Pataki. Before that raise, lawmakers had received a base salary of $57,500. The raise was also part of a package that included pay increases for commissioners, along with the approval of charter schools.
Still, some lawmakers said a raise now could be a hard sell, particularly upstate where a $79,500 salary is a comfortable wage. That’s the dilemma for some upstate lawmakers, who said they understand the difficulties faced by downstate colleagues, but recognize they would be criticized for any raise in their districts. Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo, D-Endwell, Broome County, said she would be inclined to vote against a pay raise, but as a Staten Island native she appreciates the high cost of living in the city. Lupardo gets an additional $12,500 a year as chairwoman of the Assembly Children and Families Committee. “I’m not looking for a pay raise, to tell you the truth,” Lupardo said. “But I’m in the group where the salary upstate is adequate. Downstate, it’s a different story.”