What lawmakers can do to solve their pay-hike dilemma
29th December 2018

State lawmakers are set for a hefty pay raise Tuesday, but they still don’t like the conditions that go with it: giving up their legislative stipends and most of their private income and passing a budget on time. They say the extra terms are illegal.

For that, Gov. Andrew Cuomo had a useful suggestion for them Thursday: Don’t take the extra pay.

“I don’t see a rationale [for lawmakers] to say, ‘I’m taking the raise but I disagree’ ” with some of the recommendations of the pay-hike commission, he argued. “You can’t have it both ways: If you don’t think it’s legal, don’t take the funds from an illegal act.” Don’t hold your breath.

The panel’s recommendations — including the salary bump and the conditions it set — become law on Monday unless the Legislature convenes and rejects them before then. It should come as a surprise to no one that lawmakers have no plans to meet before Monday.

That means they’ll see their base pay go from $79,500 a year to $110,000 immediately, to $120,000 in 2020 and to $130,000 in 2021 — a 64 percent jump. Sweet.

True, lawmakers haven’t had a raise in nearly two decades. And the $79,500 may be less than many of them can make working full-time in the private sector.

But public service is supposed to have its own, non-monetary rewards; you’re not supposed to get rich on it.

More important, legislators are technically paid as part-timers; many supplement their government salaries with outside income, which under the current system is totally legal.

But that’s where the trouble starts. For one thing, lawmakers want the raise without giving up what they make on the outside. For another, turning them into full-timers — which is essentially what the pay-hike panel called for — is too big a change to be pushed through without significant public debate.

A lawsuit, in fact, claims — plausibly — that doing so violates the state Constitution. Establishing a full-time Legislature, plaintiffs maintain, requires voters’ OK.

If the court strikes down the panel’s recommendations, would lawmakers have to refund their raises?

As usual, Albany has gotten itself into a jam yet again. And all because legislators feared public backlash if they simply voted themselves a raise with no strings attached.

Then again, maybe the public would’ve had good reason to be upset.

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