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Regarding a Pay Raise

December 8, 2014

Our friends in the Legislature won’t like what we have to say, but it has to be said: They aren’t simply entitled to a pay raise.

They think they deserve it – do they ever. They think it’s long overdue. They say: “Nobody goes 16 years without so much as a cost of living increase.”

In their view, there should be a commission that has the power to annually adjust lawmaker salaries.  This would take “political considerations” out of the equation. This would be “fair.”

The reality is that they aren’t working stiffs. Being a lawmaker is a part time job. Yes, there are some very conscientious lawmakers who really put their heart and soul into the job and do it full time, but most lawmakers have other jobs.  And this can be totally legit. Some lawmakers have family businesses. Some are doctors, lawyers, dentists, undertakers, farmers, etc.  All of that, in our view, is just fine.

What is problematic is when lawmakers use their status as government officials to secure outside work – as consultants or partners in various ventures that are connected in some way to government. In this regard, the most common and questionable form of outside income is “of counsel” status at law firms.  It’s a very lucrative arrangement.

What exactly happens here?  Well, it’s a game of sorts. Law firms employ lawmakers to try to convince potential clients that the firm has juice to get things done in Albany.  Having a prominent lawmaker in house is a big deal for them. The lawmakers can be real rainmakers.

Not enough work as been done to investigate the exact nature of these arrangements. Not all of them are problematic, but some are. For example, think of a law firm with a lot of insurance industry clients. If that law firm has the Senate Insurance Committee Chair serving in an “of counsel” role, that firm would be well positioned, no?

Now consider the public policy ramifications. How does that particular lawmaker balance his law firm’s clients’ interests and the public interest. See how nicely we said that. We made it sound benign. But think about it, why should a balancing act be required? Shouldn’t the public interest always come first without hesitation or question of any kind?

The rub here isn’t that the lawmaker serving in this conflicted capacity passes a bunch of bills to benefit his law firm’s clients. Nope. It’s more subtle than that. At issue is what’s called the legislative “block.”  In this regard, it’s less about happens than what doesn’t happen – like anything that negatively impacts the clients. “Blocks” happen all the time and nobody even knows about it. Reporters never pick up on it – they just think its inaction, which nobody writes about.

So what are we driving at with all of this? Well, as you’re reading this, the Governor and the leaders are indeed talking about the possibility of a pay raise. In these discussions, the Governor is asking for certain reforms, including restrictions on outside income. The goal would be to curtail not all outside income – just the creepiest forms – again it’s those instances where lawmakers trade on their position in some way.

The leaders, however, are resisting the Governor. They accuse him of “giving with one hand and taking away with the other.” But their ethical compass and their math is way off.  Restricting ability of lawmakers to trade on their office clearly is the right thing to do. So is tightening rules on per diems. And doing this won’t reduce the value of the pay raise appreciably.  In fact, for the vast majority of un-conflicted lawmakers, this isn’t an issue at all.  They’d be much better off. They’d make more overall, and have less opportunity to get into trouble.  So the leaders are wrong not to agree to this deal.

The New York Times coverage this morning puts a fine point on why Mr. Silver and Mr. Skelos might be balking. Both benefit from “of counsel” relationships that have been very, very rewarding for them.

Allow us a digression here for a media critique: While it’s true that any critical review of the way Albany works is a good thing, the Times, since Danny Hakim departed, lacks any perspective in its coverage. In this regard, its reporters and editors barely seem to know what they have. As a result, you get a story like today’s which has kernels of truly sensational information, such as Mr. Silver’s additional undisclosed consulting income, buried behind stuff that is inane, which pretty much is anything connected to Greg Ball. The Times really needs to clip this article and put it on the newsroom wall as a reminder not to bury the lead.

On related matter, the Governor might be the one who needs reminding of his responsibilities. He’s actually considering giving the lawmakers what they want – a commission that would “independently” set their salaries.

It would a bad idea for a couple of reasons. First, just utter the words: independent pay raise commission?  That’s a joke, right?  In much the same way that Governor used to say – speaking of the Spitzer and Paterson days – that state government is a punch line for national comedians, we now think of an “independent” commission in Albany as a gag.  In a short while, the pay raise commission would be just like the Legislative Ethics Commission or Redistricting Commission or like any other commission set up by the governor.

It’s a bad idea for another reason we hope the Governor understands and respects.  In this regard, creating such a commission takes away an important opportunity for gubernatorial leverage. Governor’s can use a pay raise as catalyst toward reform or other legislative initiatives. It comes along only so often and to kick it to a commission will deprive future governors of opportunity to use it as a bargaining chip. A pay raise won’t happen again on Cuomo’s watch, so what we’re talking about is Cuomo’s successors. We hope he doesn’t deprive them of the tool.

All of this said, we actually hope the Governor and the leaders can work something out.  A pay raise coupled with reforms and worthwhile legislative initiative or two would be acceptable.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    December 8, 2014 1:30 PM

    You are correct when you write: “The Times really needs to clip this article and put it on the newsroom wall as a reminder not to bury the lead.”

    Your critique, however, doesn’t really go far enough. NYT’s Albany problem goes beyond the loss of Hakim, and stems from its stentorian approach to covering state government. Because the paper shuns the daily grind of bread-and-butter statehouse reporting, it feels compelled to swoop in and dump 90 column inches on the varying shenanigans of five different guys, all collected under the banner of “Albany ethics.”

    If NYT is really interested in accountability, it should resist the temptation to write such omnibus stories, for two reasons. One is that normal readers aren’t going to plow through such behemoths, so they are by definition writing for a specialty audience. Two, from the pol point of view, there is safety in numbers. The press secretaries of those mentioned probably sat around this morning and said “it’s not so bad,” and began thinking of ways of deflecting attention from their principal by feeding tips about the troubles of the other guys. Then there is the ultimate group excuse: How bad could it be if everyone is doing it?

    For real reform, somebody big needs to go down.

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