With Election Day behind them, some New York state lawmakers have turned their attention to a politically unpopular issue that would require action before year’s end: raising their own taxpayer-funded pay.
The state’s 150 Assembly members and 63 senators receive a base salary of $110,000, on top of limited stipends for leadership positions and a $183-a-day coverage for any overnight travel to Albany. But a prior plan to increase their pay to $130,000 a year was struck down by the courts despite approval from a state commission, leaving some lawmakers to clamor for an increase.
This week, Gov. Kathy Hochul and state Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx), both voiced support for a legislative pay hike.
“I believe they deserve a pay raise,” Hochul said Friday in the Bronx. “They work extraordinarily hard. It’s a year-round job. I’ve been with them many times in their districts and they work very hard and they deserve it. It is up to them on whether or not they want to come back and make that effective.”
Spectrum News NY1 first reported the pay-raise talks.
Under the New York constitution, the annual pay rate for state legislators is set by law, meaning the lawmakers themselves get to determine the base legislative salary as well as the level of leadership stipends.
But the constitution prohibits the state Legislature from changing the pay rate in the middle of any two-year term. So if lawmakers want to increase their pay for the next legislative term that begins in January, they would have to do so by this month.
For lawmakers, it’s a politically fraught topic, leaving many fearful that their opponents could use the issue against them at the ballot box. Because of that, prior legislative pay raises over the decades have generally come after Election Day — in the small, less-than-two-month window before the start of the new term every other year.
That window is open now. And Heastie seemed to acknowledge that some lawmakers have been discussing the possibility of a raise. But he stopped short of signaling any sort of vote was forthcoming — at least at this time.
“I believe that legislators need to be compensated for the hard work that they do,” Heastie told reporters at the Capitol on Thursday. “People don’t realize the sacrifice that they make being away from their families. I don’t think there’s enough money in the world that could compensate you for being away from your families. But that being said, at this moment, there’s no discussion about coming back (to Albany) at this moment.”
In a statement, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers, said “nothing is on the table at this moment” but didn’t shut the door completely. “(As) with all things, we will discuss as a conference,” she said.
State lawmakers aren’t scheduled to return to the Capitol until January, but they could choose to hold a special session before that.
The Legislature tried to take the pay issue out of their hands in 2018, when they delegated their salary-setting powers to a state commission that was tasked with coming up with a new pay rate for lawmakers, commissioners and statewide officials. At that point, lawmaker pay had been stagnant at $79,500 since 1999.
In December 2018, the commission approved a three-year pay hike that saw the lawmakers’ salaries increase to $110,000 in 2019 and scheduled to increase to $120,000 and $130,000 the following two years.
But there were strings attached. The commission eliminated stipends for all but the top leadership positions in the Legislature, ending extra pay for most committee chairs. It also made the the second- and third-year pay increases contingent on the Legislature limiting the amount of outside, private pay lawmakers could receive at a maximum 15% of their public salary.
In 2019, however, the state courts stepped in, blocking the lawmakers’ pay raises in 2020 and 2021. They ruled the commission exceeded its authority by imposing the outside-pay limit — the Legislature would have to set that in law — so the raises were invalidated.
A state Court of Appeals decision earlier this year allowed the pay commission to remain as a legal entity, but didn’t take on the issue of the 2020 and 2021 pay raises, which had already been blocked.
Heastie said some of the discussion has been spurred by the court decisions. Some lawmakers want to set into law the commission’s initial plan that was rejected by the courts.
“I have not said anything about coming back for a pay raise at this moment. A lot of the discussion has come from the recent Court of Appeals (decision),” he said. “Some members were still confused on what it meant.”
Still, any vote to increase pay would draw opposition from certain factions of the Legislature, particularly as some Republicans made it a campaign issue to push for a special session to address crime.
“Pretty please call me back to debate this,” outgoing Assemblymember Michael Lawler, a Rockland County Republican who was elected to Congress in November, wrote in a tweet. “We can’t come back to end cashless bail, but we could be called back to increase legislative pay? I look forward to this debate.”
State Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt, a Niagara County Republican, called any pay-raise talk “patently offensive to the people we represent.”
The current $110,000 annual salary for New York lawmakers ranks second among all states, trailing only California’s $119,702, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.