Waiting a month after the November elections, New York State legislators sneakily moved to raise their own salaries by 30%, to a level of $43,000 a year — the highest salary for state law makers outside of Alaska and the highest in all 50 states if their $75 per diem is included. The pay package included special raises for some high executive appointees which were approved by Governor Mario Cuomo.
The Albany scions feathered their nest just when Washington officials from the White House to Congress were talking of cutting their pay by 10% as a symbolic gesture to demonstrate their seriousness in reducing the federal deficit.
In all the attempted salary grabs that I have observed at both federal and state legislatures, this one in New York State takes the largest lemon. Procedurally it was utter corruption. There were no public hearings held to give citizens a chance to voice their opinion. Some of them might have objected to more of their tax money going to the legislature and to other state employees who may soon argue that the boys in Albany “got theirs and now we want ours.”
What is more, there was no debate in either House ”hen the proposal came to the floor, though there was considerable joking about it. The Senate passed the measure by 45 to 13 and is Assembly by 118 to 28. That self-styled, fiscal conservative, Senate majority leader, Warren H. Anderson, went along, possibly for stopped from opposing the bill by his regular $30,000 bonus for being the leader.
Setting an example has not been an occupational trait of many other legislators on the Hudson River either. By raising their salary inordinately, these elected officials lost a good deal of ‘.hat moral authority their leadership had left to exert throughout the state.
Who will listen to their exhortations for belt-tightening and sacrifice for the common good? Thousands of workers, who recently have taken pay reductions to hold on to their full time jobs, could be upset with their legislators hiking their own pay by 30% to a level more than double the average wage and for a part-time job at that! The ability of political leaders to urge restraint upon New Yorkers who want more from the state budget also is sorely eroded by this deplorable display of greed.
Probably the worst aspect of this salary grab is that large majority of the legislators believed they could get away with what they did because citizens, taxpayers and voters are all too apathetic to do much about it. Concerned talk show host, Bob Grant of WABC in New York City believes the people just don’t care.
I do not want to agree with him. Early in the Reagan Administration, members of Congress passed a tricky little amendment that so increased the deductibility of their living expenses as to amount to more than a $10,000 -salary rise. Public disapproval followed and a few months later the Senators. and Representative meekly repealed the special loophole.
Way back in 1816 a few months before the congressional elections, members of Congress voted themselves a pay increase. The public outrage was jolting, prompting Thomas Jefferson to: write: “There has never been an instance before of so unanimous an opinion of the people.” Even though Congress quickly repealed the compensation law before election day, almost two-thirds of the entire Congress were retired by the voters.
A grand opportunity for New Yorkers to send their legislators a message, and one with many good indirect benefits as well, is now at hand. A “roll ’em back or roll them out” campaign is needed. A bill should be passed stipulating that no compensation law for state legislators shall take effect until an election of those legislators shall have intervened — an idea first proposed by James Madison nearly two centuries ago.
If New Yorkers do not rebel against this shameful salary grab in a lame-duck legislative session, conducted without public hearings or public debate, there will be still fewer limits to the contempt citizens will receive on other issues from many of the legislators.