Discussion of state lawmakers’ pay should be public

New York legislators should be given the opportunity to vote against a big pay increase that otherwise automatically takes effect Jan. 1.

The raise was recommended by the state’s Committee on Legislative and Executive Compensation. In addition to a 38.3 percent increase that takes effect Jan. 1, additional increases bump legislators’ base pay to $130,000 by 2021 — a 61-percent pay increase from their current pay. Legislators may deserve a raise, but they should have to justify it with a public vote. That is especially true since the recommendation was timed to come out after the November election, so the voting populace was effectively not consulted.

The number is especially difficult to swallow in rural regions, where the 2021 pay for state legislators could be as much as three times the median household income in an Assembly or Senate district. It’s hard to keep one’s finger on the pulse of a community when the community lives modestly while legislators do not.

In addition to questions about the actual amount legislators should make, the commission’s report recommends certain professionals like accountants, financial advisers, insurance brookers and attorneys would not be able to earn outside income while other legislators who are employed by a company or business would be able to earn up to 15 percent of their legislative salary from outside income. Some lawmakers would have to choose between quitting their law firms, businesses or medical practices, or quitting the legislature.

Granted, it wouldn’t change things for our region’s current state lawmakers: Sen. Betty Little and Assembly members Billy Jones and Dan Stec don’t have second jobs.

There could be benefits to keeping legislators from earning outside income. As we have seen in the not-too-recent past, the possibility of using state positions of influence to fatten one’s wallet has been too tempting to resist. We’re not sure how much eliminating outside income will remedy ethical breaches, but it’s worth discussing — as long as the discussions are public. Legislators should have to state their intention and defend their choices.

That won’t happen, however, unless the state Legislature calls a special session and votes to reject the pay committee’s generous recommendation in favor of a public process.

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