Gotham Gazette Sun, 25 Aug 2019 01:05:08 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Does Higher Pay Attract Better Politicians? state of the state auditorium standing

(photo via The Governor's Office)

After months of deliberating, a commission tasked with recommending salary adjustments for state lawmakers and executive branch employees met for the final time on Nov. 15 and did not suggest raises. The salary of New York state legislators has remained the same since 1999, and could stay unchanged until the commission meets again in another four years, as established by the 2015 law that created a new process for such pay raises.

Governor Andrew Cuomo and members of the Senate and Assembly could override their recent decision to leave raises up to a commission and pass compensation reform earlier. 

One of the main arguments made in support of raising lawmaker salaries is that a higher salary would “attract the best possible people to pursue the position,” since “a depressed salary will eventually discourage qualified people from pursuing those offices,” as Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie wrote in a letter sent to the commission Oct. 5.

Though the notion that increasing politicians’ pay is needed to attract better candidates to office may be quite disagreeable to the public, Heastie is not alone in that line of thinking.

Some government reform advocates, academics, and, naturally, Heastie’s appointee to the commission, Roman Hedges, have argued that better pay generates increased competition among candidates, leading to more choices for voters, and, as Hedges put it, would attract “the best people available” and create a “more professional Legislature." 

But is that true? The body of academic research examining this question has produced somewhat mixed results, though the findings generally support the claim. Most studies have shown that higher wages do result in increased political competition and attract more educated candidates (more college degree holders). Most research also shows that higher pay increases the rate at which incumbents seek reelection.

Some studies shows that higher salaries improve lawmakers’ performance in office (as measured by the number of bills submitted and approved), while others have found that lawmakers with higher salaries spend less time on legislative activities.

New York State lawmakers currently earn a base salary of $79,500 annually for what is technically a part-time job. Lawmakers may still hold employment elsewhere and earn outside income (and almost half do), and most lawmakers earn an additional $9,000-$41,500 annually from legislative stipends, or lulus, and also get per diems for traveling to Albany. 

Even though they haven’t had a raise in 17 years and the job is part-time, New York lawmakers are still the third highest paid in the nation, behind only California ($100,113 per year) and Pennsylvania ($85,339). How often state legislatures meet and how they function differ vastly from state to state, with some, like New Hampshire, paying its lawmakers only $100 a year in order to maintain a more citizen legislature. 

Had New York state lawmakers’ salaries kept up with inflation, legislators would earn about $114,000 annually. The median household income in New York is $58,687. New York City Council members recently voted themselves raises, to increase the base salary to $148,500 per year, but they also banned outside income and lulus, and are subject to a maximum of two four-year terms. There are no term limits in the state Legislature, which is “in session” from January to June each year.

Peverill Squire, a political science professor at the University of Missouri, has a body of research measuring the impact of salaries on state lawmakers across the United States. Overall, Squire has found that more seats go uncontested when legislative pay is lower (giving voters fewer choices); higher pay allows lawmakers to spend more time on their legislative responsibilities; and higher salaries are more likely to attract lawmakers who hold college degrees. For example, 88 percent of California state lawmakers, who earn $100,113 annually, have college degrees, while only 49 percent of New Hampshire state lawmakers, who earn $100 annually, have graduated from college.

Squire sent testimony to the New York State compensation commission, per the commission’s request, summarizing some of the findings from academic literature examining the influence of salaries on lawmakers. More professionalized legislatures (meaning legislatures that meet longer and supply lawmakers with higher salaries and more staff) pass a greater percentage of bills overall and enact more bills per legislative day.

Squire also noted that turnover declines as salary levels increase (the effects of which are debatable), and that lawmakers in legislatures with a higher degree of professionalization “have more contact with their constituents” and “are more attentive to their concerns.”

Some academics and policy experts caution against thinking of higher salaries as a panacea for Albany’s dysfunction. New York lawmakers are relatively well-paid among state legislatures nationally, yet that has neither deterred corruption in the state capital nor resulted in a more functional legislature.

The state Legislature is “more transactional than they’ve ever been,” said E.J. McMahon, research director of the Empire Center, a conservative think tank that studies the state economy and public policy. “At this point, by historical standards for sure, the Governor and the state Legislature, given their responsibilities, are not paid enough…but the Legislature stands out for how poor a job it does in many ways,” McMahon said.

“They introduce thousands and thousands of bills, do very little in the way of real deliberation,” McMahon added, highlighting frustrations raised in responses to a public opinion survey posted on the compensation commission’s website. “They’re as bad as they’ve ever been at waiting till the last minute to sheepishly go along and rubber stamp something that legislative leaders have cut a deal on” with the governor, McMahon said.

Adjusting the compensation levels of elected officials is a tricky situation for many reasons, especially because lawmakers inevitably have to prompt their own raise in some way, which is always a politically unfavorable move. And in New York, legislators living in and around New York City have a far greater cost of living than others.

“I think we need to pay people commensurate with our expectations of them,” said Gerald Benjamin, professor of political science and director of the Benjamin Center at SUNY New Paltz, who served on a compensation commission in Ulster County. Benjamin would prefer that state lawmakers do “full-time work for full-time pay,” in accordance with what is needed to “live reasonably as a family person in New York.”

Yet since that needed amount would differ in different areas of the state, “and compensation needs to be equal because of the nature of the task,” compensation would be skewed toward the higher end, and salaries should “be adjusted formulaically after a base is established…Pay must be targeted to open up the possibility to serve to a broad spectrum of New Yorkers,” Benjamin said. 

Benjamin’s suggestion calls attention to the difficulty of adjusting the salaries of elected officials based on one measurement alone, which is what led Italian economists Stefano Gagliarducci and Tommaso Nannicini to examine the relationship between pay and the quality of Italian mayors, as the wage of mayors in Italy depends on population size. Like New York state lawmakers, Italian mayors may also earn outside income. Gagliarducci and Nannicini found that higher wages attracted more educated candidates (as measured by the amount of years spent in school). 

Another study examined whether higher wages improve lawmakers’ performance in office, increase competition for office, and attract “higher quality candidates” amongst municipal councilors in Brazil after a constitutional amendment introduced caps on their wages according to population size, resulting in some legislators receiving higher pay than others. 

Economists Claudio Ferraz and Frederico Finan analyzed the educational and professional background of everyone who ran for municipal government in the year the amendment took effect, and tracked what the winning candidates did while in office. They found that higher wages increased political competition by attracting more candidates (though it also increased reelection rates among incumbent candidates), and attracted more educated legislators with more experience, though this effect was modest. As with New York state lawmakers, the role of a municipal councilor in Brazil is not a full-time position, and a majority of councilors still have an additional professional role.

Additionally, Ferraz and Finan found that higher salaries improved politicians’ performance in office, as measured by both the number of bills submitted by legislators and the number of bills approved, which they believe may be due to the higher incentive to be reelected.

However, not all academic research points to the same conclusion. In 2014, Columbia Business School economist Raymond Fisman and others analyzed the impact of salaries on the educational background of members of the European Parliament, and the performance of those MEPs while in office (as a law had just been introduced which equalized MEPs’ salaries, which had previously differed significantly) and found that increased salaries actually decreased the number of MEPs who came from highly-ranked universities.

Like Ferraz and Finan, however, Fisman also found that higher salaries also increased the number of incumbents who ran for reelection, and that higher salaries did “induce more political competition.”

Significantly, Fisman’s study found that MEPs whose pay increased did not become more productive in terms of their attendance at legislative sessions or their legislative output (including the number of reports prepared, written declarations, motions for resolutions, etc.). The researchers concluded that in this instance, “monetary incentives have no discernible impact on politicians’ effort, which seems more influenced by non pecuniary motivations.”

Fisman believes this could perhaps be the result of extrinsic rewards (more money) overriding the intrinsic ones (a personal calling to represent people). Though most academic research has found that higher pay does indeed increase political competition by prompting more candidates to run for office, Fisman’s findings suggest that higher pay may not necessarily lead to “better” representatives, though the additional money does attract some candidates who may not have otherwise run for office.

“There is a relationship between higher pay and inducing more people to run,” said Fritz Schwarz, Jr., chief counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice and chair of New York City’s 2015 quadrennial advisory commission, which was called to evaluate the salaries of the city’s elected officials and led to pay raises for City Council members, the Mayor, and other positions. “But I think it’s not a one-to-one relationship,” Schwarz said. “There are good people who choose to run with the low pay, and not everybody who is induced to run with the high pay is going to be Alexander Hamilton or James Madison.”

Another 2014 study, one which examined the salaries of state legislators and governors across the United States over the past 60 years, found that politicians in states with higher wages “spend greater time on fund-raising and on constituent services, but no more time on legislative activities.” Professors Elizabeth Lyons at the University of California and Mitchell Hoffman at the University of Toronto caution that their findings call into question the claim that increasing legislators’ salaries will improve the quality of state governments. However, their study did again find that higher salaries are associated with increases in political competitiveness, though the effect was modest.

Overall, most studies find that higher pay does lead to more competitive elections, which is good for voters, and generally attracts candidates with more years of education. Higher pay alone does not necessarily improve the performance of politicians while in office, which is itself tricky to define, though it does give them a greater incentive to get reelected, which may influence them to work harder to maintain their position.

Adjusted for inflation, New York state lawmakers are making less now than at most points since their last raise, in 1999. State lawmakers in California and Pennsylvania, the two states that pay their legislators more than New York, regularly see their salaries increased incrementally every year -- Pennsylvania's are pegged to a cost of living adjustment and in California a commission meets every year to adjust legislator salaries.

The question of whether or not lawmakers should receive a raise often becomes entangled by other questions: should they be able to earn outside income, or should the position be considered full-time? Should members who don’t hold leadership positions still receive stipends? Should pay be based on how effective lawmakers actually are?

Strong differences of opinion on these questions ultimately led to the state compensation commission’s failure to do the one thing it was called to do: recommend salary adjustments.

Government reform advocates, academics, and even some members of the commission were generally in agreement that New York state lawmakers ought to be paid a bit more, despite the fact that they are already the third highest paid lawmakers in the nation and Albany is still very dysfunctional. Governor Andrew Cuomo and his appointees to the compensation commission are, in fact, demanding other reforms to the position, like limits on outside income, in exchange for a salary increase -- something legislative leaders have balked at and called inappropriate given the duties of the commission.

“I think a lot of legislators in both houses, in both parties, are very frustrated with the way things work, and pay is a varying part of that frustration for some of them,” said McMahon. “But most of them are not going to be any less frustrated - they’ll simply be paid more and just as frustrated. They see how badly the system works and they’d like to change it, but they can’t figure out how to do it.”

by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette

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Does Higher Pay Attract Better Politicians? Sun, 04 Dec 2016 05:00:00 +0000
State Pay Commission Implodes as Cuomo Appointees Effectively Kill Salary Increases pay commission shot nov 15 2016

State pay commission panelists at final meeting, Nov. 15, 2016

The final meeting of the state commission tasked with recommending pay raises for executive branch employees and state legislators was marred by disagreement and accusations, and failed to produce any results on Tuesday. It appears that the panel will be disbanded without taking any substantive action.

In a chamber at the New York City Bar Association in midtown, members of the New York State Commission on Legislative, Judicial, & Executive Compensation met on Tuesday to discuss recommendations on increasing salaries for members of the state Senate and Assembly and state agency heads and commissioners. It was the last public meeting of the commission, which was under a November 15 deadline to make its recommendations as mandated under the April 2015 statute that create it.

But the six members of the committee who were present could not find common ground and the meeting devolved into significant disagreement about the role of the commission and whether it should even take a vote on the one set of recommendations put forward. A vote was taken on whether pay should be increased by about 2 percent per year since the last increases, in 1999, and resulted in two yays and three abstentions among the five voting-eligible panelists. There was even a dispute over whether commissioners could simply not vote or if they were considered abstaining from the vote by doing so.

It was the two commissioners appointed by Governor Andrew Cuomo who refused to record any vote at all while the chair was not given a vote under the statute establishing the commission. The two appointees by legislative leaders voted in favor of raises, and the representative of the judicial branch abstained.

The executive appointees, Fran Reiter and Robert Megna, said they would not approve any raises unless they were accompanied by substantive ethics reform in Albany, particularly a severe limit on the outside income of legislators. (Megna was recently appointed by the governor after another appointee, Gary Johnson, resigned from the commission. The third executive appointee, Mitra Hormozi, was out of the country, the chair said.) Reiter said the commission should not vote on any proposal and stay open in the hopes of lawmakers convening a special session in Albany to vote through such outside income limits.

Commissioners also took issue with the fact that members of the state Legislature did not appear before the commission to make their case for a raise and to answer the commission’s questions. The legislative appointees, on the other hand, argued that the commission was charged with making an independent decision that should not be unduly politicized, expressing disappointment that the executive appointees were effectively parroting Governor Cuomo’s position to force reform.

That the vote would fail was made clear right at the start of the hearing by Reiter, who began by saying that the executive appointees would refuse to vote on any proposal increasing pay for state legislators, while generally agreeing that employees of the executive, such as agency heads, deserved much needed pay raises. She insisted that legislators should first establish a cap on outside income, essentially making their jobs full-time, and follow the lead of other elected bodies that have done so including the United States Congress and the New York City Council.

“It is unfortunate that the good legislators who work full-time, ably and honestly represent their constituents and most assuredly deserve a raise will suffer because there is refusal to right systemic wrongs,” Reiter said.

Roman Hedges, an appointee of State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, refuted Reiters argument with a thinly veiled barb aimed at the governor. “I don’t know exactly where to begin,” he said, “except to say that the reason there is a Legislature is to resist the King and that’s why it was first created, that’s why it exists and that’s what I just think I heard, ‘Do it my way or don’t do it at all.’”

Insisting that pay raises for the Legislature -- where the base annual salary has been $79,500 since 1999 -- are necessary to attract “good people” to state government, Hedges instead proposed a 2.154 percent per year cost-of-living increase across the board, even suggesting that it include the Governor and Lieutenant Governor, positions outside the commission’s jurisdiction.

“It doesn’t change the relative status of doesn’t change the balance of power,” he said. “The balance of power is part of the question and it needs to be incorporated in whatever it is we recommend.” Hedges’ proposal, which would raise salaries for state legislators from $79,500 to roughly $114,500, was later voted on but failed to garner the necessary majority.

Reiter and Megna were visibly exasperated as Hedges spoke. Reiter sighed deeply, threw her hands up from time to time and audibly scoffed when Hedges said, “I think it’s awful that the governor wants to be King. I think it’s awful that the governor’s representatives here think that he should be King.” Reiter later hit back at Hedges’ for questioning her independence. “I reject that notion and frankly, I’m insulted by it,” she said, announcing that she had not spoken to the governor since well before being named to the panel.

Hedges found support from James Lack, who was appointed by Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan. “I think [the percentages are] certainly fair and represent only an inflationary increase brought about of course by the political impossibility of having to vote for an increase yourself,” Lack said. 

The commission members also debated whether they could effectively continue their work after Tuesday, without a statutory mandate. Reiter posited that if they were to adjourn without putting any proposal to a vote, it would afford the state Legislature time to pass the reforms she was demanding before the end of the year and the commission could reconvene to move ahead with raises. But judicial appointees Barry Cozier and Chair Sheila Birnbaum both disagreed, as did Lack, saying that the commission would no longer have statutory authority and would have to be reauthorized by the state Legislature. Megna released a statement hours after the panel adjourned, saying that he believes the commission can still act before the end of the year and that he hopes the Legislature will enact outside income limits so that he and the commission will feel justified to vote through significant raises. He also said that he was open to small raises without such reform.

According to the 2015 law creating the commission, its recommendations would become law for the new year unless voted down by the Legislature. A commission is set to convene every four years according to the law, which sought to put the Legislature and Governor at some distance from ostensibly giving themselves pay raises. 

The commission’s failure to make any recommendations did not sit well with legislative leaders in Albany. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Democrat, and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, a Republican, said in a joint statement that it was “unfortunate” that the governor’s appointees demanded legislation in exchange for approving pay raises. “This is completely unacceptable,” they said, “and far exceeds the mandate of the Commission, which was to evaluate the need for an increase in compensation based primarily on economic factors.”

But Governor Cuomo, who legislators say has been interfering in the commission’s work, seemed indifferent to the lack of a decision, telling reporters at an upstate event, “They have till December 31 to see if they come up with any reconciliation but the public of this state is decidedly against any pay raises for the Legislature.”

Cuomo is in favor of raises, but has argued for months that lawmakers should also cap outside income. Heastie made the argument in October that legislators deserve a pay raise and his chamber has been open to some cap on outside income. Senate Republicans have refused to consider any cap, citing the importance of a part-time Legislature and the ability for legislators to hold other jobs.

Good government groups also decried the commission’s decision, or lack thereof, but with a key difference. “No action is not an acceptable resolution,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, in a statement. “While we believe that any raise should be accompanied by a limit or ban on outside income, we also believe that the Commission must do its job and make a recommendation, just as the NYC Quadrennial Advisory Commission for the Review of Compensation Levels for Elected Officials did last year. Continued government dysfunction is not functioning for New Yorkers.”

The New York City Council recently passed pay increases for its members and citywide elected officials, while banning outside income and declaring the Council member position full-time.

Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union said, however, that the pay raises should have been recommended without any caveats. “Elected official pay decisions should not be subject to a quid-pro-quo negotiation,” he said, while reiterating support for new ethics reforms in Albany. “It appears that political interference played more of a role in this decision than the law provided for...The pay commission should have offered a modest salary increase based on the length of time lawmakers have not received a raise and increased it even more had the Legislature returned later this year to address the issue of outside compensation.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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State Pay Commission Implodes as Cuomo Appointees Effectively Kill Salary Increases Tue, 15 Nov 2016 05:00:00 +0000
Recommendations Near, State Pay Commission Constitutionality Questioned heastie cuomo flanagan

Heastie, Cuomo, Flanagan (photo via Governor's Office)

Recommendations on potential salary increases for Governor Cuomo and members of the state Legislature are due Tuesday, but constitutional questions hang over the effort to increase legislative and executive chamber pay.

The New York State Commission on Legislative, Judicial, & Executive Compensation is at the center of the issue and an ongoing legal battle over the validity of the process it was put in charge of through 2015 legislation. Created as part of the April 2015 budget package, the commission is charged with making recommendations for salaries for the legislative, judicial, and executive branches of state government. The recommendations are due Tuesday, November 15, and will become law for the new year, when the next, largely unchanged class of state legislators takes office, unless they are modified or voted down by the current Legislature.

Raises for state legislators -- state Senators and Assembly members currently make a base salary of $79,500 -- would be the first since 1999. But the nature of this process has been questioned, with disagreement over whether this method of increasing salaries is allowed under the New York State Constitution because of the delegation of such power to the commission, which the law states will now convene every four years.

The budget “created the commission and it gave it the force of law,” according to James Coll, the founder, an adjunct professor at Hofstra University, and the plaintiff in a court case challenging the constitutionality of the commission. “Which means that the commission gets to write the law, and the way that I read the New York State Constitution, those who are given the power to create laws are the Legislature, who have a veto or approval by the governor, or override the governor’s veto, and that is the only way it should pass.”

Coll sued the commission, Gov. Cuomo, and the state Legislature. His arguments were dismissed in New York State Supreme Court in Nassau County, but he has appealed to the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court.

On behalf of the defendants, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s Motion to Dismiss argued against Coll on two grounds.

First, the motion argued that Coll’s “deep concern” does not provide him the standing to sue. In the motion’s eyes, “standing to sue requires the plaintiff to allege not only that he has an injury in fact that is distinct from any injury of the general public, but also, that he is within the zone of interests protected by the statute or constitutional provision at issue.” Furthermore, as the motion says that Coll’s injury is “identical to any alleged injury suffered by the general public, as well as speculative,” Coll’s “deep concern” did not provide him adequate standing to sue.

Second, the motion concluded that the commission is constitutional, on multiple grounds: that Coll did not prove the unconstitutionality of the commission beyond a reasonable doubt, that this commission was not an improper delegation of legislative authority, that the provisions cited by Coll “do not support his contentions,” and that “other states’ similar compensation statutes have been upheld” by the United States Supreme Court.

New York State Supreme Court Justice George R. Peck agreed with Schneiderman’s motion and dismissed the case in a three-sentence statement. In finishing his statement, Peck wrote, “Although this court has a financial interest in the outcome of this case, recusal is not necessary because every New York State Supreme Court Justice would have the same interest.”

As Coll appeals, government officials dismiss the validity of his case, but other experts think that he raises some very important questions on the constitutionality of the pay commission.

“I think it’s an intriguing argument. It could go either way. And I think a close reading of the constitution with specific provisions could lead you to a conclusion that an affirmative vote is needed,” said Gerald Benjamin, a dean and political scientist at SUNY-New Paltz, hitting on one key aspect of the pay commission’s larger structure: that its recommendations become law unless voted down. “But the courts have been respectful of the Legislature, so it’s hard to predict how the Court of Appeals will ultimately decide on this,” Benjamin said.

Provisions of the New York State Constitution, like Article 3, Sections 13 and 14, outlining how laws should be enacted and how bills should be passed, and Article 7, Section 7, outlining when money can’t “be paid out of the state treasury or any of its funds,” could, in Benjamin’s opinion, be interpreted in a way that puts the constitutionality of the commission into doubt.

The commission was created as part of the budget agreement among Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, and the leaders of the state Senate, which is controlled by Republicans, and the state Assembly, which has a Democratic majority. The commission has met five times publicly this year to hear testimony and discuss its jurisdiction and factors into its recommendations, and it will meet once more on November 15th, the day recommendations are due.

The commission has seen public infighting and canceled meetings, and it has been the subject of squabbling between Cuomo and legislative leaders. Cuomo made multiple comments tying the commission’s recommendations to the Legislature taking certain actions, including on timely budgets and campaign finance reform, and indicating that he believes pay raises should be accompanied by government ethics reforms. Cuomo wants to see a limit or ban on legislators’ outside income, which is currently unlimited.

In a statement to Gotham Gazette about the constitutionality of the commission, Abbey Fashouer, a spokesperson for Cuomo, said that “the court has already squarely rejected constitutional challenges to the pay commission.”

Gov. Cuomo has been relatively quiet on the commission of late. He remarked several weeks ago that, “Once the commission finishes, they will submit their findings, their opinion, their record. And then I’ll have an opinion that I’ll state, informed by the commission. But the purpose of the commission is to advise me on that question.”

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie’s office supported the commission in a recent public statement, calling it necessary “in order to remove politics from the decision making process in determining appropriate salary structures in our government.”

Neither Heastie’s office nor the office of Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan returned requests for comment for this story.

Both Coll and Benjamin disapprove of Heastie’s desire to remove politics, and therefore the people who elect lawmakers, from the decision-making process. Coll believes that this removal of elected officials from the decision-making is unconstitutional.

by Brendan Birth for Gotham Gazette

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Recommendations Near, State Pay Commission Constitutionality Questioned Sun, 13 Nov 2016 05:00:00 +0000
With Controversy Brewing, State Pay Commission Moves Toward Recommendations pay commission

The state pay commission (photo by Meg O'Connor)

A commission tasked with examining the compensation of state lawmakers and executive branch officials met for the fifth time Tuesday, and all seven commissioners agreed that heads of state agencies deserve a significant raise. However, the meeting was adjourned without the commissioners examining the salaries of statewide elected officials, and nothing was agreed upon during the brief and heated discussion of pay for Assembly members and state Senators.

The commission's recommendations are due in a little over four months, on Nov. 15, and Tuesday’s meeting was nearly called to an end without addressing legislators' pay at all, save for a remark by one commissioner. The commission agreed to discuss the controversial issue of Assembly member and Senator pay, which has gone unchanged since 1999, during the next meeting, on July 26. Tuesday's public meeting was an open discussion among commissioners that did not allow for any public testimony, and there will be no additional public hearings before the deadline.

The Compensation Commission set a tentative window for the top-earning agency commissioners’ annual salaries at somewhere between $175,000 and $200,000. These salaries have gone unchanged for the past 18 years - top-earning commissioners, like the head of the Department of Transportation, currently earn about $136,000 annually.

There was no vote on the matter, though, as the commission still needs to determine the exact number they will recommend, which they are likely to do when they meet at the end of July. Conversations about whether or not to phase in the salary increase are also ongoing.

As newly required by law, every four years - beginning June 2015 - the New York State Commission on Legislative, Judicial, and Executive Compensation is established to examine the compensation of state judges, legislators, statewide elected officials, and certain state officers. The commission is made up of seven commissioners - three appointed by the Governor, one by the Senate Majority Leader, one by the Assembly Speaker, and two by the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals. The commission must make its recommendations before November 15, 2016. The commission’s recommendations will automatically become law and go into effect on January 1, 2017, unless the Legislature specifically votes against the increases.

Tuesday’s meeting mainly examined compensation for members of the executive branch. Yet the salaries of the Governor and other statewide elected officials (which also have not been raised since 1999) went unaddressed during this meeting, and has not been thoroughly examined during past meetings or hearings. The commissioners seem generally confused as to whether they have the authority to recommend salary changes for the Governor and other statewide elected officials, like the Comptroller and the Attorney General, and questioned that while speaking amongst themselves before the meeting began.

The commission released its recommendations for the judiciary in December 2015, which included salary increases for judges phased in over a four-year period.

The compensation of state legislators, members of the Assembly and the Senate, who have not received a raise to their base salary of $79,500 since 1999, will be addressed at the next meeting. The subject was briefly raised, but the conversation turned tense and the meeting was adjourned shortly thereafter with little, if any, progress made on the issue.

The salaries in the executive branch dominated Tuesday’s discussion, with commissioners agreeing to set a “tentative window” for the salary of the so-called “A-level” commissioners (meaning those who currently have the highest compensation). The commission eventually landed on the $175,000-$200,000 window, and agreed to adjust the compensation of the lower-earning top agency officials proportional to the adjustment for top-earning commissioners.

“This shouldn’t simply be an inflation adjustment,” said commissioner Roman B. Hedges, former professor of political science and former deputy secretary of the state Assembly Committee on Ways and Means. The inflation adjustment for top-earning commissioners would be an increase of about 43 percent (to about $193,000) as their salaries have not been adjusted for almost two decades. “We should be thinking about how we can make this a compensation” that the commissioners deserve and that can attract the best people to public service, Hedges added.

Sheila Birnbaum, chair of the pay commission and co-head of the Global Products Liability and Mass Torts practice at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, suggested that the increase should raise the salaries of top-earning commissioners to somewhere “not as high as [comparable] New York City commissioners, but maybe at least somewhere between” that and the inflation adjustment. Many top-earning New York City commissioners earn about $220,000 annually.

“There’s a certain symbol in the $200,000 number,” Hedges said, “It’s still below what the judges are making, it’s still below what the city commissioners are making, and it’s more than inflation…we want to make sure that our executive agencies are staffed with people who can handle the breadth” of managing complex agencies.

“I understand the spirit of Hedge’s suggestion…but by my calculation that would be something like 47 percent,” said commissioner Gary Johnson, executive legal counsel at Medgar Evers College and former director of the Governor’s Office of Employee Relations. Johnson added that that sort of an increase might be politically unsavory.

“That will be incredibly difficult to sell,” said commissioner Fran Reiter, a former executive deputy director for State Operations under Governor Andrew Cuomo.

“I don’t have problem with the 200 number,” said commissioner Barry Cozier, senior counsel in the litigation practice of LeClairRyan, “but I think, because we do have political considerations involved, and yes as pure percentage it’s a substantial increase,” perhaps “as with the judges, we should consider whether it should be a phase in over the years.”

“I personally feel that we should not be looking at a number under $195 for the A group,” Cozier added.

Reiter said she was “not comfortable” with that number, and called on the commission to be “realistic,” suggesting a range of $175,000-$180,000. “What we do here is ultimately going to be judged by the Legislature, who can negate what we do…and since we haven’t even begun to talk about what will be the most controversial issues that we face…we may very well come up with a number [for commissioners] that the Legislature is not going to be acceptive of if we don’t do the same for them,” Reiter cautioned.

The commissioners then agreed to “come up with a number for the A-level commissioners that would then be proportionally applied to the other commissioners,” in Johnson’s words, and decided to address whether the pay increase should be phased in over time or given all at once at the next meeting.

In the few minutes the “most controversial” issue of legislative compensation was discussed, the conversation quickly became heated. Legislators earn $79,500 and haven’t had a raise in 17 years, but can earn unlimited outside income because the position is considered part-time. State lawmakers’ outside jobs have been the subject of heightened controversy in recent years, especially as former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was convicted on several federal corruption charges last year after trading official favors to pocket nearly $4 million in legal fees. Government reform advocates and Governor Cuomo have proposed significant limits on legislators’ outside pay while calling for their base salaries to increase dramatically in an attempt to limit corruption in state government.

On Tuesday, two commissioners (Reiter, appointed by Cuomo, and James Lack, a former state Senator appointed to the Commission by Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan) repeatedly cut each other off to shout at one another over the relevance of state lawmakers being classified as part-time or full-time.

The argument broke out when Reiter criticized lawmakers for not making the case to the commission that their work should be considered full-time: “No one, among the three [lawmakers] we’ve heard from, came here and said to us, ‘You know, the work we do is not just when we’re in Albany, we go back to our districts and here are the kinds of things we do, and that would have been a valid argument-“

“Oh, Fran, cut it out!” Lack interrupted, describing the work he and his colleagues did for their constituents when the Legislature was not in session and lawmakers returned to their districts. “Who cares” that three “junior” state legislators “didn’t bother to distinguish between full- and part-time,” Lack said, adding that while he was a legislator, “no one went around distinguishing between part-time and full-time.”

Reiter responded that the “reluctance of the state Legislature to make its own case pisses me off.” (Government reform advocates have repeatedly expressed that the commission should be as independent as possible and should not allow those whose salaries they are tasked with determining sway their opinion). “Sorry if you don’t get that,” Reiter added.

“Oh, I get it,” Lack responded. “I certainly get why they don’t want to come and see you.”

Tensions will likely remain high when the commission returns to discuss legislative pay on July 26. The meeting was adjourned almost immediately after the heated disagreement between Reiter and Lack. “We all knew that when we got to talking about the Legislature it’d get a little more heated - but we don’t have to get the heat this high!” said Birnbaum.

Leaders from government reform groups have testified at two of the commission’s prior public hearings, and agreed that the current salaries for state legislators are insufficient, but urged the commission to take into account the “stunning series of seemingly unending scandals” coming out of Albany, as Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, put it.

Both the commission and advocates agree that, having not received a salary increase since 1999, legislators ought to receive one, and that doing so could help attract strong candidates to public service. Yet, advocates also warned that the actual amount that legislators earn is more than their base salary, since lawmakers can also earn leadership stipends, per diems, and outside income given the “part-time” nature of the job.

“The Commission's recommendation should look at the base salary of legislators as part of a complete review of legislative compensation, including outside income and leadership stipends,” said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, a government reform group, during a March 10 hearing. The Commission should also consider “the additional and often outrageous presence of money within New York's political system, such as elected officials' personal use of campaign funds, loopholes in campaign finance law, and the power and secrecy surrounding discretionary funding.”

Speaking amongst themselves before the meeting began, the commissioners seemed unclear as to whether or not they had the authority to recommend reforms to the way legislators are compensated.

“I’m not sure if lulus are part of the conversation,” said Hedges, referring to leadership stipends.

“I think that’s an important thing to confirm,” Reiter responded.

This is supposed to be a “basic salary change…that’s what the senators told me - now that’s just their interpretation of what it is that they passed,” Lack said of legislators and their legislation creating the commission.

The law passed last year did not grant the commission authority to make changes on reforms like limiting outside employment of elected officials, according to Horner. If the Legislature does not convene and specifically vote against the commission’s recommendations, the new salary levels will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2017. This will be for the new class of legislators chosen through November’s elections, many of whom will be the same individuals who currently hold the posts. There are no term limits in the state Legislature.

During next November’s general election, in 2017, voters will decide whether to call a Constitutional Convention. If called, the convention would convene in April, 2019, and could address whether the job of a state lawmaker should be changed to full-time, among many other issues that may be on the table.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has previously said that the compensation commission was not called to decide whether the Legislature should be full time. “I think what the commission in our minds was set up was, ‘what is the requisite pay and what is the pay scale?,’” Heastie said. “Those are the definitions. Other considerations around income are not what they’re charged to do.”

by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette

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With Controversy Brewing, State Pay Commission Moves Toward Recommendations Wed, 29 Jun 2016 04:00:00 +0000