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State lawmakers seek first pay raise in 20 years

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It’s been 20 years since the governor and the Legislature in New York received a pay raise. But that might be changing in January. A panel formed to determine future pay for lawmakers is holding hearings and will make a recommendation by Dec. 10.

Since 1998, there’s been no change to the base pay of $79,500 per year for senators and Assembly members, although many make several thousand dollars more a year in stipends for leadership posts or for chairing committees. They also receive $174 to cover expenses every day that they are in Albany on business. 

The governor is paid $179,000 a year, and agency commissioners make about $136,000.

During the past two decades, many state lawmakers have been indicted and convicted of crimes — and in some cases, imprisoned — making it politically difficult to justify raises.

Thelatest commission to examine the compensation rates of the executive, legislative and judiciary branches held its first meeting in mid-November. It’s chaired by two current and two former New York state and New York City comptrollers. The state’s chief judge, Janet DiFiore, was to have led the panel, but she recused herself, saying it would be a conflict of interest to decide on a salary increase for herself.

New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer told the other commissioners that the panel is looking at various criteria for raising salaries, including the rate of inflation over the past 20 years and some other, less common factors.

“If pay increased at the rate of inflation, it would be up 54 percent, or $121,000,” said Stringer, who added that if pay increased at the rate of state spending growth over that period, lawmakers would earn $145,000 today.

And he said if lawmakers, many of whom are attorneys, saw their pay increase at the same pace as the legal profession, their salaries would be $160,000.

Blair Horner with the New York Public Interest Research Group has done an analysis of the pay for New York’s elected officials compared to other states. It finds New York already has the third-highest-paid governorand Legislature, after California and Pennsylvania.

The Senate and Assembly posts are still considered to be part time in New York.

“Despite the fact that they haven’t had a pay raise in 20 years, relative to their colleagues across the country, they’re doing rather well,” Horner said.

NYPIRG does not take a position on whether lawmakers should get a pay raise, and Horner said it’s true that downstate New York has a high cost of living.

But he said an objective, nonpartisan commission that’s free of political appointees is needed to determine what the compensation rate should be.

“We think adequate compensation should be developed, and we don’t think it should be some sort of political football between the executive and the Legislature over some deal,” said Horner. “And that’s historically the way it’s worked out. We don’t think that’s right.”

The 1998 pay hike came after then-Gov. George Pataki reached a deal with the Legislature to expand charter schools.

A pay raise commission created in 2016 failed to make any salary recommendations, after appointees of Gov. Andrew Cuomo bickered with other members of the commission.

The commission will hold two public hearings, one in Albany on Nov. 28 and one in Manhattan on Nov. 30.

If the pay commission does decide by Dec. 10 that elected officials in New York deserve a raise, the decision does not need to be ratified by the Legislature. It would automatically take effect, beginning in 2019.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.