November 26, 2014
By NYS Senator Brad Hoylman
New York, NY – It’s been over 15 years since Albany lawmakers got a raise. As a result, some of my colleagues in the state Legislature are once again floating the idea of a pay hike in a lame-duck session.
They’re going about it the wrong way. Even without a raise, our base salary of $79,500 is already nearly twice the median income of our constituents. And that pales in comparison to the amount some lawmakers receive from potentially shady side jobs.
Before Albany dares to increase legislative pay, we need to rein in the excessive sums of outside cash that pad lawmaker pockets.
It’s often said that elected officials “work for the people.” But that’s not technically true all the time for Albany legislators, particularly those who are lawyers.
There are no restrictions on outside income from the practice of law, allowing one out of four members of the state Senate to collectively earn up to an eye-popping $2 million a year. The public is in the dark about the identity of these lawyer-lawmakers’ clients, the time they spent representing them and the nature of the clients’ interests.
Recent history provides ample reason for concern. In the past five years, eight different lawmakers have been charged with public corruption for using outside employment to funnel cash to themselves. One legislator went so far as to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars of laundered money on lavish parties, spa treatments and sushi.
Earlier this year, the Moreland Commission issued subpoenas to at least 18 law firms to force disclosure of lawmakers’ client lists. The firms invoked “attorney-client privilege” to stymie the subpoenas.
As a lawyer, I appreciate the importance of attorney-client privilege. But the privilege has exceptions, and it must yield to higher interests. This should be one of them.
The relationship between an elected representative and his constituents is not less significant than the relationship between an attorney and his client. Should we sacrifice that core democratic value to protect the self-interest of a handful of lawyer-lawmakers?
As you might expect, lawmakers have been nervous about casting a vote to raise their own pay. To improve the optics, some have suggested pairing the pay raise with an increase in the minimum wage for working New Yorkers. Others recommend tying it to the DREAM Act — or camouflaging the salary hike with reform of the “per diem” reimbursement lawmakers enjoy for travel and meals.
These three changes are worthy as standalone measures. Coupling them with the pay hike is cynical and misguided.
Instead, any pay raise should be coupled with or preceded by serious new restrictions on lawmakers’ outside income. As a starting point, we could mirror the approach taken by Congress.
In Washington, a legislator may earn no more than 15% of their base salary in outside pay, and there’s an outright ban on the most pernicious forms of outside employment — work involving a fiduciary duty, such as banking, providing investment advice and, yes, practicing law.
Better yet, recommendations on legislative pay shouldn’t be made by the lawmakers themselves. Albany should establish a commission, similar to the one for state judges, that meets at a regular intervals to review the pay of legislators. The commission would consider a host of factors, such as inflation and comparable pay in the government and nonprofit sectors.
Talk of a pay raise is understandable. Most of my colleagues work extremely hard and some are only scraping by to provide for themselves and their families.
But instead of worrying about how to soften voter outrage by dressing up a pay hike with popular legislative initiatives every few years, Albany should fix the compensation system once and for all and limit outside income.
*** New York State Senator Brad Hoylman represents the Upper West Side, Midtown, Chelsea, and the East and West Village in the State Senate. The article was originally published in the New York Daily News on November 24, 2014