Editorial: Negotiation time

When was the last time you had a raise? In this economy, it might have been a while. Years, even.

If you’re a member of the New York State Legislature, it’s been 13 years since you last saw a raise. That’s the rallying cry (or perhaps more accurately, a rallying whisper) amongst lawmakers who are arguing for a pay hike. And while many of their constituents can no doubt sympathize when it comes to pay freezes, lawmakers should be required to make their arguments using the full picture.

Members of New York’s Assembly and Senate make a base pay of $79,500, and that’s a figure you will most often hear when a raise is argued for. Yes, that is well above the median income of New York, which is about $31,000. That seems justifiable, though, given we would like to attract the best and brightest to our capitol to perform a job that is sometimes harsh and requires a lot of time away from family.

But few legislators actually make $79,500. First of all, legislators are allowed to draw a per diem of $171 for every day the Legislature is in session to cover their expenses (the Legislature usually meets for about half of the year). Fair enough. But then there are bonuses. Legislators who head up committees or sit as majority or minority leaders in either house get a pay boost. This brings the average legislator’s pay to just over $90,000, and a few dozen representatives manage to bring home six figures. Sen. Malcolm Smith and Assemblyman Sheldon Silver each make $121,000 base, for example.

Even without this important caveat, New York’s state representatives are among some of the best compensated in the nation. Lawmakers in many states are paid by the day only — in Alabama for example, legislators pull in a whopping $10 per day (although they’re allowed to claim over $4,300 of per diem expenses every month they’re in session). Only Pennsylvania and California pay their lawmakers a higher annual salary than New York.

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