Opinion & Blogs

Column | NY Legislatures should be banned from taking outside income

The New York State Capitol in Albany, Jan. 17, 2018. (Nathaniel Brooks/The New York Times)

Here we go again: The 213 members that make up the New York state Legislature are asking for a pay raise. And this time, they have a very good chance of getting one.

As part of a state budget deal last spring, the New York State Compensation Committee will determine in the next few days whether or not to hike lawmakers’ salaries in 2019. It would be their first raise in 20 years if approved.

Pay hikes have been a popular sticking point for legislators. State Assembly members and senators have earned a base pay of $79,500 a year since 1998.

While that is a long time to go without a raise, New York is still the third highest-paid legislature in the country, behind California and Pennsylvania. And many legislators earn an additional $9,000 to $41,000 in stipends for various leadership positions.

Related: Column | A wish list for Democrat-controlled state government

Perhaps most important, $79,500 is only for a half-year’s work. The legislature is considered part time, as it is only in session from January to June.

When they’re not in session, many lawmakers make outside income working other jobs back in their home districts, mainly at law firms and insurance agencies. Indeed, six senators earned at least $100,000 in outside income in 2015.

And that’s what needs to be addressed: If our representatives want more money in their pockets for their work in government, they need to first agree to place an outright ban on outside income.

Despite years of watching indictments, trials and sentencings of their legislative colleagues for rampant corruption in the state government, the Legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo have done close to nothing to pass concrete ethics reform that would help curb that corruption. It doesn’t require much thought to realize that a system where lawmakers spend half the year in other types of work can easily lead to conflicts of interest in how they govern and put other motives in play.

The scandal that disgraced former state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was the result of his outside job. He made a lot of money in that outside job, including $4 million in kickbacks after he funneled some $500,000 in state grants to a Columbia University doctor who, in return, sent his patients to Silver’s law firm — which then paid Silver for the referrals.

Silver also voted for state tax breaks for a real estate company, which then steered business to a law firm, from which he also received referral fees. He was convicted twice for those crimes and was sentenced to seven years in prison last July.

Related: No silver lining for remorseless kickback kingpin Sheldon Silver

There are those who argue that a significant pay raise will by itself cut down on corruption fueled by outside income. But we shouldn’t have to dangle pay raises in front of lawmakers to prevent them from being corrupt. That should not be the bar we set for our elected officials.

Increasing lawmakers’ salaries while banning outside income at the same time basically makes the Legislature a full-time job. And that’s an equation that benefits both them and us. A full-time Legislature would put an end to the pay raise debate. And a reasonable payment for full-time work would diminish any need for outside income.

Every time lawmakers have tried to get a pay raise, they have been denied after vigorous opposition from everyone, from good government groups to newspaper editorials to voters, because of their lack of action on reasonable ethics reform. Yet they keep trying for a pay raise over and over again without any conditions attached to it.

The state Compensation Committee has to be clear on their decision: If there’s no ban on outside income, there’s no raise. It’s that simple.

It’s not just about corruption. It’s about a return to the most basic principle of governing. If you work for us, you work only for us.

 

Luke Parsnow is a digital producer at CNY Central (WSTM NBC 3/ WTVH CBS 5/ WSTM CW6) and an award-winning columnist at The Syracuse New Times in Syracuse, New York. You can follow his blog “Things That Matter” online and follow his updates on Twitter.

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