2012-07-19 / A Hometown View From Albany

A Hometown View From Albany

Legislative Pay Hike vs. Minimum Wage Hike
By Marc Gronich
Capital Bureau Chief

There is rampant speculation around the halls of government that state lawmakers are trying to justify a way that they can vote themselves a pay raise after the November election.

Marketing this move to the public will be tricky because of two thirdrail issues hovering in the backdrop:

• Public employee unions recently agreed to a multi-year contract with no pay increase for three years as well as higher health insurance payments; and

• The Senate Republicans rejected a measure that would increase the minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.50 per hour.

“For there to be a conversation about increasing the wages for legislators without even a discussion about increasing the minimum wage, that’s abominable,” Senator John Sampson, told the Canarsie Courier. “The minimum wage is a poverty wage.”

The cost of the lawmakers pay hike would be expensive — in the multimillions of dollars expensive — because it often includes increases in other expenses given to state lawmakers, such as extra money for leadership positions and committee chairmanships, per diem for traveling to Albany on non-session days and hikes in room and food allowances.

Lawmakers have not had a pay raise since 1999. A review of state legislative salary levels since 1967 shows each increase averaged 28%. State lawmakers earn $79,500. If this pattern holds to form, state lawmakers are looking at a $25,000 boost. Lawmakers might be able to try to justify even a higher amount because they might contend it could be another 14 years before another hike could be implemented.

In some quarters, pay hike advocates are pushing for a raise to be put into statute so pay hikes can be planned on a regular basis.

State lawmakers in our coverage area rake in some extra money, called “lulus,” from serving in what is considered a part-time capacity.

Sampson, for example, currently earns an additional $34,500 for his post as Senate Democratic Conference leader, totaling $114,000. This is much more than the average salary of his constituents, which is approximately in the $40,000 range, according to state labor statistics.

Martin Golden, a member of the Republican majority, receives an additional $19,500 for being the assistant majority whip. Kevin Parker receives an additional $9,000 for being the ranking member of the Energy and Telecommunications committee. In 2010, Carl Kruger, now a felon in federal prison, earned an extra $34,000 for being the chairman of the Senate Finance committee. David Storobin, Kruger’s successor, was seated in the Senate too late in the year to be appointed to a post where he could earn some extra cash.

In the Assembly, Alan Maisel, who is in charge of House Operations for the Assembly, running the administrative side of the lower house, earns an extra $12,500. He also chairs the Commission on Solid Waste Management, for which he gets no additional compensation. Helene Weinstein, chair of the influential Judiciary Committee, takes home an extra $18,000 and Nick Perry gets a pay bump of $19,500 as the Deputy Majority leader. Inez Barron is one of the few state lawmakers not to have a leadership post or a committee chairmanship, so she earns her base salary of $79,500.

Keep in mind that New York City Council members earn $112,500 a year. They travel less and have a lighter legislative schedule. Six members of the New York City Council are former state lawmakers.

Governor Andrew Cuomo and some legislative leaders have been trying to justify a pay raise by passing two timely budgets and cleaning up corruption among their ranks. None of that will sit well with state workers even if the trade-off is a slight minimum wage increase in exchange for a legislative pay raise.

When considering pay raises for state lawmakers, the governor has been lamenting that state commissioners have not had a pay hike for more than a decade. The governor has said that attracting top talent to the commissioners’ posts has been difficult because of the relative low salary when compared to the private sector. There are many assistant and deputy commissioners earning a higher annual salary than their bosses, since the commissioners’ salaries are set in law and not negotiated.

The governor and legislative leaders are trying to image this pay hike as a necessary move. But with state workers agreeing to a three-year wage freeze and unskilled workers not receiving an increase in the minimum wage, it might not be the wisest move politically for lawmakers to hike their pay after the November elections.

If the pay hikes are not authorized this year, it is likely going to be another four years before another window of opportunity arrives.

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