October 29, 2016

Meanwhile, Back in Albany (v6)

Nathaniel Brooks/NY Times
Members of the Commission on Legislative, Judicial and Executive Compensation have been butting heads over whether or not the NY Legislature deserves a raise.

In order to consider how much of an increase should be given to our officially part-time legislature, they have to get past the issue of whether the perceived lack of interest shown by members of the Assembly and the Senate is indicative of anything more than election year jitters, or if they really think that staying out of it and not commenting will help.

One member of the Assembly, Rodneyse Bichotte, has been paying attention to the proceedings, including comments by Commission member Fran Reiter who, as we learned last time, had entered into the record a statement that, in a nutshell, a raise was not deserved, in part because no one was willing to come before the Commission and fight for one. Bichotte submitted a letter in which she volunteered to testify before the Commission on why a raise was not only desired, but necessary.

As promised, let's take a look at some excerpts from her letter.
I write to you as someone who takes their job seriously, and as someone who has lived the true reality of the struggle to make ends meet... I write to you as a legislator that has suffered from the ill perception that people have of those who hold elected office, particularly in light of the recent scandals that have plagued both houses of the New York State legislature.
The face of Albany has changed dramatically with people of color approaching 50% and women topping 25% of the legislature. What you will fine is that there is a major discrepancy in terms of where outside incomes are a factor and where they are not. For example, they tend not to be a factor amongst members of color, women... the majority of legislators are not independently wealthy and struggle to pay their bills like many of their constituents... We cannot allow those ...who earn significant outside income to dictate the incomes of the majority of legislators whom are living off a relatively low base salary that has not been touched for decades.  
Bichotte goes on to explain her background - five degrees in the math, engineering and finance arenas; a co-op purchased with savings from previous jobs; a mom-to-be staring at a stagnant wage set by people who just don't get it.
Like former legislator Tim Sullivan once said, "a legislator cannot feed their family with honor." In the case of present-day elected officials our wages are not commensurate with the work we do, the hours invested,the miles traveled, and they myriad of other responsibilities associated with our work.
The figures to increase the legislature's salaries are not based in reality. The increase is based on figures that show that for almost two decades the legislature's salaries were not increased proportionally and with regard to the rate of inflation, the cost of living, and as a measure of the type of work we do as executive leaders. 
Referencing others who are paid more - professors in the SUNY and CUNY systems and NYC council members, among others, she continues
This is all the while being away from their families for at least half the week, and then needing to travel to constituent events on weekends and any time they are available, not to mention the large volume of law making with one of the highest State budgets in the country. 
The reality for the majority of the legislators is that the work we do is full time. Our priority is to answer to our constituents and their issues do not only exist six months out of the year... Although at one point in time, the NYS legislator's position was part-time, to say that legislator's jobs are part-time now would be egregiously inaccurate. The time when there is no session is the time that many legislators spend building relationships in their communities, going to community events, and getting to see issues up front and on the ground. This is far from downtime... 
 Other points raised in the letter?
  • the high costs of living in NYC, Westchester and Long Island, in comparison to upstate cities like Utica;
  • NYC Council members are paid $148K, but state legislators have to deal with both state legislation AND legislation specifically and solely related to NYC;
  • Members represent between 130,000 and 260,000 people (dealing with them directly as they don't have sufficient staff,), and write much of their own legislation 
Bichotte recommends a salary in the $140,000 to $160,000 range for full-time positions, "in line with legislators in the NYC Council and Congress as good comparable models."  That also seems to be in line with the latest suggestion on the table for the Commission.

So - do any of her points ring true? Should we consider these folks full time, based on what an actual NY politician says, rather than on some comparison to what they do in California and Pennsylvania, or on some scholarly writing?

And if we accept her position that she and other members of the Assembly and the Senate are full time, and are not crooks, and do not have outside income, and struggle like many of their constituents across the state, do we also lend credence to her position on what a reasonable salary looks like?

My answer, and a recommendation, come tomorrow.