N.Y. Lawmakers Seek to Give Themselves First Raise in 15 Years

New York state lawmakers are seeking a special session to vote for their first pay raise in 15 years.

If they reach a deal with Governor Andrew Cuomo for a vote before Dec. 31, any increase above the current $79,500 minimum salary would go into effect when the new legislature reconvenes in January. After that point, a pay increase wouldn’t take effect until 2017.

The bid for a raise comes at a precarious time for lawmakers in Albany. Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara is conducting an investigation into possible ethics violations by legislators and conflicts of interest related to money they earn from outside jobs.

“They have a substantial problem with how they’re perceived by the public,” said Susan Lerner, director of Common Cause New York, a government watchdog. “If there’s a special session, they should take on issues that influence how the public feels about Albany and the legislature before doing a pay raise.”

Even so, Lerner said there’s reason to give lawmakers a raise. Had they received annual cost-of-living adjustments tied to inflation since 1999, each would be be making more than $100,000 annually, she said.

Corruption has been an issue in Albany for decades. Last year, Cuomo created a commission to investigate lawmakers after three were arrested on graft charges in two months. When the governor abruptly shut the panel down in March in exchange for new ethics laws, the probe was taken over by Bharara.

Half-Year

In New York, the legislature generally convenes between January and June. Lawmakers are allowed to have outside jobs and income is unlimited. Their base pay is the third highest in the country, behind California and Pennsylvania, according to the Empire Center for Public Policy, which favors less government spending.

Last year, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, took home at least an additional $650,000 as an attorney with the firm Weitz & Luxenberg, according to his financial-disclosure filings. Dean Skelos, the Long Island Republican who co-leads the Senate, earned at least $150,000 for his work as a lawyer. Bronx Senator Jeff Klein, Skelos’s Democratic counterpart, collected at least $75,000.

Silver points to New York City Council members, who make a base of $112,500 per year without having to travel hundreds of miles for a session. Skelos says 15 years is too long to go without a pay increase.

Raising Sheep

Not every lawmaker has a high-earning outside job. Cecilia Tkaczyk, a Democratic senator who represents Amsterdam, a city near the Adirondacks, earned as much as $5,000 last year raising sheep and gathering wool, her filing said.

Still, Bharara said in an October radio interview that he’s taken particular interest in the outside pay lawmakers receive. After Cuomo disbanded the commission, Bharara took all of its files, saying he’s pursuing multiple investigations.

Unfettered outside income “is a recipe for what we have in New York, which is a little bit of a corruption disaster,” Bharara said.

The legislature should be a full-time job and there should be limits on outside income, Lerner said.

“We definitely see the fairness of bringing legislators into a fiscally realistic pay scale,” Lerner said. “At the same time, we are concerned that a pay-to-play and corrupting atmosphere continues unabated in Albany.”

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