While Democratic lawmakers in other states seek to unify against President-elect Donald Trump, those in New York are focused on trying to raise legislative pay to nearly $100,000 a year.
Some pundits say the maneuvering to convene a special session to push the pay raise through either before or just after the end-of-year break is a case study in misplaced priorities and out-of-touch political optics.
“There are a million things they could be doing, and their priority is clearly getting themselves more money,” said Doug Kellogg, of the group Reclaim Albany. “It’s the [end-of-year] and people are busy and focused on other things. Lawmakers know this is unpopular and they’re trying to duck accountability.”
Members of New York’s Assembly and Senate now make $79,500 for what is technically a part-time job. It’s the third-highest legislative salary in the nation, but hasn’t been increased in 17 years.
One proposal would boost it to $99,500, which would give New York lawmakers the second-highest salary, just behind No. 1 California at $100,000. Another would raise it even higher, to $116,000.
Lawmakers had hoped a state commission would authorize an increase, but the panel balked at the idea last month. That forced the issue back to the Legislature, which must approve a raise by Dec. 31 for it to take effect next year.
“People should be paid what they deserve,” argued Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who has led the chamber’s Democratic majority in clamoring for the pay raise.
Republicans have been quieter in calling for the increase, with some concerned that in exchange for a bump in their legislative pay they would have to agree to give up the money they make from law firms and other outside employment.
The request comes at an especially awkward time for Democrats following a presidential election that handed their party a historic defeat.
Besides that, more than 30 lawmakers from both parties have left office since 2000 facing criminal or ethical allegations. The two former leaders of the Legislature were both convicted on federal corruption charges last year.
“I’m not saying that they shouldn’t get a pay raise, but I’m saying they haven’t made their case,” said Fordham University political scientist Christina Greer.
Democrats in other blue states, meanwhile, are more focused on Trump. Top Democrats in California huddled the week after the election to examine their party’s loss and how to block actions from Washington that conflict with California’s policies on immigration, labor and the environment.
Those in Illinois and Massachusetts held public meetings to discuss the election and what to do about it. And two leading Democrats in Colorado filed a lawsuit designed to ensure members of the Electoral College have the ability to vote for someone other than Trump.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said he wants the state to stand as a model of tolerance and compassion following Trump’s election. And if lawmakers return for a special session, he wants them to do more than just authorize a pay hike — by passing ethics reforms or voting to fund a new task force to address a post-election spike in hate crimes.
Cuomo said he’s sympathetic to lawmakers who have gone so long without an increase. But he said citizens will want something in return.
“I think the people of this state want to see performance,” he said.