Higher pay might reduce Albany corruption

State Legislature

On Tuesday, state Sen. Malcolm Smith and five others paraded by television cameras and journalists on their way into the federal court in White Plains where, one after another, they pleaded not guilty to numerous corruption charges.

Scenes like this help explain why, when you ask New Yorkers what they think about the state Legislature, the first words that come to mind are corrupt, unethical and dysfunctional. And it isn’t just the recent spate of arrests of sitting legislators that have them so disgusted. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, over the last seven years, 31 state officials have been accused of wrongdoing, arrested, indicted or convicted. Between 1976 and 2010, 2,522 elected New York officials have been convicted of public corruption, making New York the No. 1 state when it comes to federal public corruption convictions.

There are a lot of reform proposals being discussed, including a proposal on the table from Gov. Andrew Cuomo. What the governor didn’t suggest, but should consider seriously, is paying our legislators more. As unappetizing as this idea sounds on its face, it is worth serious consideration.

Our state legislators make $79,500 per year, which, with additional stipends for those who run committees and serve in leadership positions, amounts to about $170 per day. By national standards this is pretty good. New York legislators are the third-highest paid in the country and they make far more than the median household income at $56,951. But as all New Yorkers know, $80,000 goes much further upstate than it does downstate and in many areas of our state, it isn’t enough to raise a family. In fact, legislators from counties such as Nassau, Suffolk, Rockland and Westchester are making less than the median household income in their areas.

Moreover, $80,000 is much less than what many of our best and brightest citizens (and potential legislators) can make in private industry and practice. The U.S. Department of Labor reports the median annual pay nationwide for physicians, surgeons and orthodontists is $166,000; chief executives earn an average $165,000; dentists, $140,000; judges, magistrates, architectural and engineering managers, an average $119,000; computer and information system managers, $115,000; lawyers average $112,000; and financial manager, $103,000. In New York, starting salaries for these positions are higher. It is not surprising that so many of our most gifted and talented citizens — those who may make the best legislators — choose not to run for office.

Not only is legislative pay comparatively low, but it has not kept up with the cost of living. New York legislators have not received a pay raise in 13 years. The last time was in 1999 when former Gov. George Pataki approved an increase in return for an expansion of charter schools.

Cuomo flirted with a similar quid pro quo arrangement last year. He called it “staggering” that lawmakers haven’t received a raise in a decade and considered linking pay hikes to items such as an end to the ‘per diem’ reimbursement system, cuts in mandates on local governments, ethics reforms, an increase in the minimum wage, and a salary bump for his top aides and commissioners.

While he considered this deal last fall, he was oddly silent on the issue when he announced his recent anti-corruption reform proposal. It is something he should come back to again, but when he does, he should not only tie an increase in salary to the “per diem” reimbursement system, but also to a requirement that state legislators give up outside employment during their time in office. The New York Public Interest Research Group shows that 135 New York legislators have one or more sources of outside income — 47 are engaged in real estate and 45 practice law.

It makes no sense that so many of our representatives are holding down outside jobs on top of their work in the Legislature. Does anyone seriously think that a state senator who is practicing law is being sought after for his or her legal prowess? Likewise, should our representatives in Albany really be engaged in real estate deals while they are serving in the Legislature?

These reforms — increased pay, no outside employment, and a cleaning up of the per diem system — should be tied to reconsideration of the pension structure; $70,000 a year for a part-time job? It is as questionable as the idea that after being convicted of corruption, a legislator may still be eligible to receive taxpayer money.

The idea of paying our legislators more is very unpopular. In a poll conducted before the recent round of arrests, 65 percent of New Yorkers said they oppose the idea. That number has likely skyrocketed in the last few weeks. But just because the proposal is unpopular doesn’t mean it should be discounted.

When it comes to the state Legislature, New Yorkers are getting what they pay for — legislators who are working long days for part-time pay and in many cases holding down outside jobs which make them beholden to private interests. It is an arrangement that benefits no one, particularly the citizens of New York.

Originally posted on lohud.com/Journal News