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No raise for state lawmakers, but not all are disappointed

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State lawmakers, who have not had a pay raise since 1999, are no closer to getting one in the new year. The state commission assembled to recommend a possible raise instead rejected the measure on Tuesday. But not everyone eligible for the raise is upset.

On Tuesday, the state commission formed to study and return a recommendation for possible pay raises balked at the idea. That means Assembly members and Senators, who currently earn $79,500 per year for what is technically a part-time job, will miss out on a raise that would have bumped their pay up to nearly $117,000 beginning in January.

Buffalo-area representatives WBFO spoke with expressed no disappointment. Assemblyman Michael Kearns, a West Seneca Democrat, says he has always opposed the proposed raises and called Tuesday's decision "good news." 

"I think where I'm at, being an upstate legislator, I knew the salary when I came into the office," said Kearns, who recently won re-election though he ran unopposed. "I would not have been supportive of a legislative raise."

But downstate lawmakers have been pushing for a raise, citing a higher cost of living in the New York City and Long Island areas. During a visit to Buffalo on October 20, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie renewed that argument. Heastie, who lives in the Bronx, suggested the purchasing power of that wage is closer to $53,000 in his area.

"Legislators have children that they need to help go to college. They have real lives," said Heastie. "People want to continue to do their jobs, but if you don't have a requisite pay, you're going to really shrink the talent pool to where you're only going to have the wealthiest of New Yorkers run for public office."

Legislative pay is a controversial topic, especially in light of numerous scandals that have forced no less than 30 lawmakers from office since 2000.

Buffalo-based Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, who was asked about the prospect of raises shortly before the decision came down Tuesday, said she wouldn't be upset if she didn't get one. But, after serving in office for 14 years, she admitted she wouldn't turn it down.

"I know that the electorate doesn't have a lot of tolerance for it, and I understand that," Peoples-Stokes said of the push for pay raises. "But I will tell you that there are not many people who work for 14 years and not look for some sort of opportunity for increments."

There is still a very remote chance lawmakers could get a raise. Legislators have the option of calling a lame-duck session or appointing a new commission to reconsider in the final weeks of the year.  At least one member of the current commission hinted that they'd be willing to consider a special session, but only if lawmakers agree to ethics reforms including a cap on outside income. 

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.
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