Since Election Day, the state Capitol has been buzzing at the prospect of lawmakers returning before the end of the year to vote themselves a pay raise.
If that happens — and there’s no guarantee it will — New York Assembly and Senate members will likely become the nation’s highest-paid state legislators.
They currently are paid a base salary of $79,500 for a six-month session that includes about 70 days at the Capitol. That sum is frequently boosted by tens of thousands of dollars for members (in both parties) who hold leadership positions on committees.
That base salary is exceeded only in California and Pennsylvania, where lawmakers earn $90,526 and $84,012 respectively.
Legislators frequently point out that they haven’t had a raise since 1999, but there’s been little open discussion — and not a single hearing — about whether they deserve an increase.
So has their collective performance warranted an across-the-board raise? Do they deserve one?
The National Conference of State Legislatures, which tracks salaries, groups legislatures into various categories. New York is “green,” meaning it’s large, well-staffed and relatively costly. Its counterparts are Wisconsin, Illinois, Massachusetts, California, Pennsylvania and Michigan.
For lawmakers in these and other states, the job is really a full-time one, regardless of how many days they are in session, said Morgan Cullen, an NCSL policy analyst.
Still, it’s instructive to look at what New Yorkers pay and what they get in return for living in the state. Lawmakers, and the governor, do a lot to set the rules for the state’s economy — in terms of regulations and tax rates, laws that impact the cost of government and its employees, and benefits offered to the public.
New Yorkers continue to bear the nation’s highest tax burden, paying 12.6 percent as a share of overall income in state and local taxes, according to 2011 data analyzed by the fiscally conservative Tax Foundation.
New York is frequently tied with New Jersey in this metric, although Gov. Andrew Cuomo has slowed the growth in property taxes with a flexible cap.
But compared with states where lawmakers earn considerably less — and with some neighboring states — New York has significantly higher tax rates.
In Massachusetts, for instance, legislators are paid $60,032 and the Bay State’s tax burden is 10.3 percent.
New Hampshire boasts what may be the lowest-paid legislature in the nation: Members get just $100 annually and their state tax burden is a meager 8 percent. The Granite State gets by with no income or sales tax.
The lowest state/local taxes, 6.9 percent, are in Wyoming. Its lawmakers earn $150 per day when in session. In Texas, lawmakers are paid $7,200 per year and the tax burden is 7.5 percent, one of the nation’s lowest.
New York, Wyoming and Texas, of course, are vastly different states. Wyoming has a population of fewer than 600,000 people and an economy based heavily on oil and gas.
Texas and New York are closer, the second- and third-most populous states with 26.5 million and 19.6 million people, respectively.
New York is at or near the top in the amount its residents pay in several other expenses.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Empire State residents as of September were paying the lower 48 states’ second-highest residential electricity rates: 19.40 cents per kilowatt-hour, just below Connecticut’s rate of 19.74 cents.
The lowest is in Washington State, at 8.95 cents; legislators there earn $42,106.
And in October, New Yorkers paid the highest average local and state taxes combined on gas at 50.25 cents per gallon, just above California and almost double the national average of 30.88 cents according to the Petroleum Institute (In addition, there is the federal tax of 18.40 cents).
Aside from Alaska at 12.4 cents, the lowest was in New Jersey at 14.5 cents.
New York’s Medicaid system is generous — a 2012 United Cerebral Palsy survey, for example, ranked New York the ninth-best for Medicaid services for the disabled. (Arizona came in first; Mississippi was last.)
New York’s State University system remains a relative bargain too, according to a comparison by the College Board.
In-state tuition and fees at SUNY Buffalo, for example, are $8,871 compared to $13,602 at theUniversity of Massachusetts Amherst, or $18,464 at Penn State. The University of Texas at Austin is fairly affordable at $9,798.
The state’s welfare system does a comparatively good job of supporting families. The median state cash benefit in 2013 was $789 per month, compared to $428 nationally, according to theCenter on Budget and Policy Priorities, a think tank following issues affecting the poor.
Our state’s grant-to-poverty ratio indicates that 33 out of 100 New York families are kept out of poverty by public assistance.
That’s higher than the meager 6 in Texas or 13 in Florida, but lower than New Hampshire’s 37 and a long way from California’s 60 points.
But people who are laid off in New York have to scrape by on an unemployment insurance payment that is far lower than in other states, and by some measures one of the lowest nationwide.
A laid-off worker in New York can collect no more than $410 per week. In New Jersey, it’s $636 and Connecticut’s unemployment tops out at $590 per week.
In terms of “replacement income,” or the percentage of the actual wages lost by a laid-off worker, New York is 48th, according to the National Employment Law Project.
So should New York lawmakers get an increase?
Those involved in public policy in New York fault the Legislature on many fronts.
“State aid and state taxes are going this way,” said Sara Niccoli of the Labor-Religion Coalition, pointing down.
As that happens, more costs are pushed off to localities that are forced to raise property taxes, said Niccoli, who is also supervisor of the town of Palatine in Montgomery County. She frequently hears from residents saving their money — so they can move to Florida.
E.J. McMahon, president of the fiscally conservative Empire Center, criticizes lawmakers for their fecklessness in the face of powerful leaders — Republican Dean Skelos in the Senate and Democrat Sheldon Silver in the Assembly.
“They just turn up there and wait to be told what to vote on next,” he said.
“They need to prove to the public that they are fundamentally improving the way that they operate,” he said.
© 2014 Albany Times Union