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Will New York lawmakers vote for a pay raise before the year is out?

New York State Capitol Snowy Winter
Matt Ryan
/
New York NOW
A snowy day at the New York State Capitol.

New York state lawmakers are considering holding a special session before the end of the year to vote on a pay raise for themselves.

While many Democrats are in favor of the idea, some Republicans say any special session should address the state’s controversial bail reform laws, too.

Pay increases have always been a controversial subject for lawmakers to tackle. As a result, senators and Assembly members, who now earn a base salary of $110,000 a year, have seen few raises in the past couple of decades.

A pay commission in 2018 recommended that lawmakers’ base pay, then $79,500 a year, be increased to $130,000 by 2021. But only the first phase -- which brought their salaries to the current $110,000 in 2019 -- was carried out. The final two phases were struck down in court.

Legislators are allowed to vote for a salary increase, but it can’t apply to the current officeholders, only to future terms. So, senators and Assembly members could vote by the end of 2022 to raise salaries beginning with the next term, which begins in January 2023. Since the vast majority of the 213 lawmakers are incumbents who were reelected, most would benefit from the decision.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said he’s in favor of a salary increase.

“Personally, I believe that legislators need to be compensated for the hard work that they do,” Heastie said. “People don’t realize the sacrifice that they make, being away from their families.”

It’s a long-held Albany tradition for lawmakers not to directly confirm that they are planning on voting on a pay raise. When asked if a special session is happening, Heastie hedged.

“This moment, there’s no discussion about coming back,” Heastie said. “At this moment.”

Other sources confirmed that the idea of voting on a pay raise this month has been discussed.

Lawmakers’ current base pay of $110,000 is considered a healthy salary in upstate regions, but in New York City and its surrounding suburbs, the cost of living is considerably higher, and the money does not go as far.

New York City Council members earn closer to $150,000 a year.

In the past, governors have often put up roadblocks to lawmakers seeking to vote for a pay raise, or demanded something they wanted in return.

In 1998, former Gov. George Pataki agreed to a pay raise for lawmakers, from $57,500 to $79,500. In exchange, he got a significant expansion of charter schools in the state. That deal also docked legislators’ pay whenever the state budget was late, though they would receive their full pay once the spending plan was finished.

Former Gov. Andrew Cuomo objected to a salary increase for lawmakers, and that disagreement led to the formation of the pay commission to make those decisions. Cuomo also sought to strictly limit lawmakers’ outside income after several legislative leaders were convicted of crimes related to outside jobs that they held. But courts struck that provision down as well.

This time, though, Gov. Kathy Hochul does not object to the idea.

“I believe they deserve a pay raise,” Hochul said. “They work very hard and it’s a year-round job.”

Hochul said she’s ultimately leaving the decision to senators and Assembly members to make.

“It is up to them,” she said.

Pay increases approved in the past have also extended to the governor and other statewide officeholders.

Republican legislative leaders, who are in the minority party in both houses, say there should not be a special session on pay raises unless lawmakers also address some recent controversial criminal justice laws, including the 2019 bail reform laws, which ended many forms of cash bail.

Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt, in a tweet, also objected to the idea of a pay raise at this time.

“This is tone-deaf," he tweeted. "New Yorkers are struggling to afford basic goods and necessities, much to the fault of Albany Politicians. Yet THEY 'deserve' to be the highest paid state legislators in America? No.”

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Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.