Highest legislative pay ever?

by Ken Girardin |  | NY Torch

A recommended 64 percent pay increase for New York’s state legislators would result in the highest inflation-adjusted salary level ever for members of the state Assembly and Senate.

The four-member (and temporary) New York State Compensation Committee on Thursday signaled the base salary of state lawmakers should be hiked in three steps from $79,500 to $130,000 by 2021.

Based on historical and projected inflation rates, the ultimate top salary will equate in real terms to $121,856 a year—an all-time high, as shown in the chart below.

In 2018 dollars, the recommended 2021 salary would exceed the previous legislative base pay of $119,928 enacted in 1998—which was itself a new record. It would also catapult past the current pay rate in California, now the nation’s highest at $110,459.

Looking further back in state history, legislative pay didn’t exceed its current level of $79,500 (2018 dollars) until 1961, when pay was increased to what would today equal $83,642. (A detailed history of legislative pay increases can be found in this article in POLITICO New York).

Under a provision of the budget approved by the Legislature in March, the committee’s recommendation (to be released in full on Monday, Dec. 10) take effect immediately unless the Legislature (meaning both houses) votes to reject the plan before the end of the year. The committee issued separate recommendations for raising the pay for the governor state and commissioners.

Committee members indicated lawmakers’ pay increases would somehow be conditional on to the termination of legislative stipends—i.e., supplemental pay received by members for serving in leadership and committee roles—and a restriction on lawmakers’ outside income.

But the Compensation Committee appears to have given no consideration to the fully-loaded value of state legislators’ compensation, which in addition to salary can include family health, dental and vision insurance coverage, a choice of generous defined-benefit or defined-contribution retirement plans, retiree health insurance, mileage reimbursements and per diems. For instance, while the committee compared each state’s legislative base salary, it failed to note that California lawmakers elected since 1990 don’t qualify for public pensions.

New York’s annual legislative session—which technically never is adjourned—requires most rank-and-file lawmakers to be in Albany for 60 days or so in most years. Beyond that, members typically spend time year-round on self-defined (and inevitably self-promotional) “constituent service” activities in their districts.

Once the committee’s recommended pay levels are phased in, legislators’ salaries would be set by yet another commission, created in 2015 but temporarily superseded by the current pay entity. That commission, which failed to agree on a pay hike at the end of 2016, would have similar authority to recommend new legislative (and judicial) pay increases every four years—meaning another raise is possible as early as 2025.

Constitutionally questionable

It remains to be seen whether a legislative pay increase enacted by a committee or commission will withstand judicial scrutiny. As noted in this space when lawmakers last attempted in 2015 to hike their pay via commission, the effort appears to run afoul of the state constitutional requirement that the rate be “fixed by law.”

Other efforts by the committee to attach conditions to the raises, such as restrictions on outside income and the elimination of a stipend system codified in statute, may also fall outside the bounds of what powers and policy decisions the Legislature can delegate.

And these are questions that don’t even begin to scratch the surface of whether New York’s taxpayers would be getting their money’s worth.

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- Ken Girardin is the Policy Analyst at the Empire Center for Public Policy.