EDITORIAL: No big raise

SO YOU GO TO THE DMV office in Hudson and wait in line to learn what paperwork you need and what you don’t need and what you don’t have and can’t get. Then, after you fill out those forms–both sides but not the bottom–being sure to swear that your car is not now nor has it ever been a snowmobile, tub toy or modified to carry gorillas, you learn that you didn’t swear to the part about the gorillas and you must return to the table where slow people like you are swearing to similar things or just swearing and you sign your name again and again. Then you get back in line again, so humbled at the window that you don’t dare breathe until you’re told that Yes, you can have the document you need… but not until you pay $50 for the pleasure of this visit.

What has this got to do with a pay raise for state officials? It helps explain why so many of us think of state government as dysfunctional. And that may be why legislators have been unwilling to vote to give themselves a raise for the last two decades. Functions that should be minor clerical matters turn into bureaucratic quicksand for average citizens. It’s a symptom of the public’s wariness of what goes on at the capitol in Albany.

It’s not all the fault of most people with government jobs. The Department of Motor Vehicles office in Hudson is run by the Columbia County clerk. The people who staff that operation are really smart and very helpful. They have a deserved reputation for assisting people to navigate the swamp of motor vehicle transactions. The DMV clerks didn’t create forms that repeatedly ask for the same information. They can’t explain what makes no sense. They do help you get what you came for.

Some states have streamlined the forms. Our lawmakers might learn from them and even small improvements would be welcome. But there has long been legislative gridlock in Albany because Democrats controlled the Assembly and Republicans, mostly, held the Senate. But as of January, Democrats will control both houses of the legislature and the governor’s office. The first test of whether that will yield better government is about to unfold.

Lawmakers could just vote themselves a raise of their $79,500 annual base salary (many have “leadership” job descriptions, which entitle them to more), but at the next election the voters might not reward them for increasing their salaries.

Instead, the state has a committee headed by former state Comptroller and Senator H. Carl McCall that has recommended a 63% raise for legislators over three-years. That would net them a base salary of $130,000 a year. The single job they have to do to earn that raise is adopt a state budget by April 1, the deadline set by the state constitution. Oh, and there’s one other thing. Members of the Assembly and Senate would have to agree to limit the amount of money outside of their state salary that they can earn each year.

Some voters don’t know that right now their elected state representatives can hold a second job unrelated, so they say, to their public duties. The committee proposal would limit those earnings to no more than 15% of the lawmaker’s annual salary from state government.

Opponents of the cap on outside earnings claim it would spawn a class of professional politicians. But really, what have we got right now if lawmakers can charge for their services while still holding office? New York’s lax rules about outside income encourage ethical lapses and, often enough, outright corruption.

It is time for a pay raise, in part because some of the raises would go to people in the administration, not the legislature. The state has to offer reasonable salaries to the people authorized to run multi-million dollar agencies. But not a 63% raise.

Average hourly earnings in the U.S. rose by 2.9% over the year ending in September. It seems reasonable to offer legislators a salary increase tied to a real number like 2.9% a year and adjust it every two years in sync with election cycles rather than rewarding them with huge lump sum increases.

Who cares if they haven’t raised their salaries since 1998? Members of the Assembly and Senate knew in years past that voters wouldn’t have approved a raise. Now they admit it. And for that they get a bonus? Spare the taxpayer. Keep the cap. Cut the raise.

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