August 25, 2016

Meanwhile, Back in Albany (v2)

Nathaniel Brooks/New York Times
In my post the other day, the first in a new occasional series focused on what's going on in New York's capital,  I talked about the limited number of days our part-time legislators are required to spend in in Albany, how much time they seem to spend fundraising, and how we can't account for the time they spend on the job when they're not in session. All of that leads us to today's post, where I take a look at some of the pros and cons of giving the NY Legislature a raise.

First, the cons:
  • The senators and assembly members know what the pay and benefits are going in; it's not a secret.  They also know that they job will require them to be away from home off and on during six-month legislative season during which time they'll be expected to participate in committee meetings, caucus meetings, and legislative sessions.  
  • They are officially a part-time legislature. Sure, they'll be expected to put in some time after hours, when their constituents are home from work and have time to call with some complaint or another, but they have a light official schedule. 
  • Their current salary (not counting per diems and lulus) is already the third highest among the state, behind California and Pennsylvania.
  • Other than days the Legislature is in session, we have no idea what they're doing on our behalf, or how much time they spend on our business.
  • The legislators receive a pension for what is, in effect, a volunteer position, and something many of their constituents don't have for their full-time jobs.
  • Many of them have outside income, which is not unexpected given that the legislature is supposed to be a part-time job.
  • At any time, a legislator can not run for re-election if they feel they can't live on the salary they make.

Now, the pros:
  • The salary has not gone up since 1999, which admittedly is a long time to go without a pay increase. 
  • The salary is not competitive with other public sector jobs, such as those earned by say, unionized government workers, or with comparable private sector jobs.
  • We can't get good people to run because the pay is too low; this is particularly true for legislators from New York City or other areas with a high cost of living.
  • The salary is so low, elected officials will fall victim to schemes of personal enrichment because they need the money.
  • What they do is worth more than what they get.
  • They are really a 'full time' legislature because of everything they do outside the official calendar, and so deserve more money.
  • The outside income they receive could also lead them ethically astray, because they might legislate on behalf of their own interests rather than those of the rest of us. 

Have I missed anything in either of the lists, or does that pretty  much cover it?  

Coming up, we'll look at the proposed increase, and some conditions that might be attached to the raise to get the commission working on it to come to a recommendation. 

August 22, 2016

Meanwhile, Back in Albany (v1)

Nathaniel Brooks/New York Times 
It's been awhile since I've looked at Albany in the pages of veritable pastiche.

I tried to get excited about the legislative session that ended back back in mid-June, I really did. As is usually the case, the end of session is a jam-packed, fun-filled time. In the first twelve days of June alone, there were nearly 700 bills introduced or amended, some more than once, according to this article. And of course, the end-of-session is where the rubber meets the road. As the article notes:
This is crunch time, when the power reputations of lobbyists and special interest groups are put to the test, and when rank-and-file lawmakers face a traffic jam to get their pet bills onto the floor, where legislation is rarely defeated. 
Makes you feel all warm and fuzzy, doesn't it?

Some things did get accomplished this session. There were some changes made to breast cancer screening practices, including more user-friendly hours, time off from work, and some insurance changes. There was increased focus on the opioid epidemic, and some opportunity for stripping ethically challenged legislators of their pensions, assuming the legislature approves it again in the 2017 session, and then New Yorkers will have the chance to vote on it -- in 2018.

We can serve alcohol earlier on Sundays, helpful to restaurants that are in the brunch business and for sports bars that carry European events which sometimes are shown live here at 8AM. And daily sports betting has been determined to be a game of skill instead of a fool's errand, so we're going to be back in business there, barring a successful legal challenge.

And, we got a very complicated process for increasing the minimum wage, over a period of years, to something that more closely resembles the 'living wage' we've heard so much about during the presidential campaign.

So, why does this all leave me and so many other New Yorkers less than thrilled with our state legislature?

The NY Legislative calendar (matching versions are published by the Senate and Assembly) reflects that, from the early January through the end of May, there are 48 session days and 8 days of 'legislative activity/budget hearings.'  Add in the nine days scheduled for June, and you've got a total of 65 days during which our part-time representatives, who are all paid at least $79K annually (plus a per diem for each day they travel) are officially at work in Albany doing the people's business. Or waiting to do the people's business, as the case may be. And fundraising.

According to the NY Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) in a June 3rd press release, there were at least 167 'out of district' fundraisers by State Senators, State Assembly members, and by their respective committees. About a third of them were held at the Fort Orange Club, which must be a pretty special place to get all of that business.

I don't know if anyone keeps track of the other fundraisers that are held within the districts to help raise the necessary cash to run for re-election; these at least would seem on the surface to be OK, since the legislators would be asking for support directly from the people they represent.

They do more than fundraising and attend a few sessions from January to June. There's 'constituent service' that keeps these folks and their staff busy at least some of the time when they're not on the clock in Albany. There are ribbon to cut and signs to unveil, and those ever-present banners to unfurl - you know, the ones thanking them for "bringing home our tax dollars" in support of events and festivals for us, and stuff like that.

I get that the job doesn't have regular hours. My mother was a member of her local town board for one term, and I know she took some calls 'off-hours' but it was hardly a 24/7 job, and I don't think being a state legislator is one, either. But with no required accounting of the work these folks do, it's hard to get a sense of how much time they actually put in as legislators.

So now, hearing that our part-timer lawmakers might be in for a big fat pay raise, and a possibly a designation as full-time legislators, I have to scratch my head. I just have to scratch my head.

I'll try and take an objective look at the pay raise issue in my next post. No promises, but I'll do my best.