Assemblyman Dan Stec said he would not surprised if a lawsuit is filed over a state pay committee’s decision to give raises to state lawmakers and cap the amount of outside income they can earn.
“Can the Legislature delegate its authorities and duties to an unelected body?” he asked.
A state compensation committee has approved increasing legislative pay from $79,500 to $110,000 on Jan. 1. The increase would be phased in to get up to $130,000 by 2021. The amount of outside income legislators could earn would be capped at 15 percent of their total salary, but that would not take effect until 2020.
Stec, R-Queensbury, said the committee may have overstepped its authority by putting the cap on outside income when its task was to set salaries.
“There’s certain people that are questioning whether this was constitutional,” he said.
Stec said the process of how these raises are being implemented is a separate of issue of whether legislators deserve a raise and how big it should be.
Stec said this was another example of lawmakers cramming policy issues into the budget bill, rather than as a stand-alone bill. The committee met after Election Day, so legislators did not have to take a stand on the matter.
“It was a dodge by the Legislature and the governor to set this up and not be on the hook for a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote on their own pay raise,” he said.
Stec said the outside income issue does not affect him personally, because this is his only job. However, he can see the problems that outside income has created, such as in the case of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who was convicted of using his political influence to steer $4 million in business from real estate developers and a medical researcher to his law practice.
“People that have gotten in trouble, for the most part, were attorneys. The lines were blurred,” Stec said.
But Stec pointed out some people have long-standing businesses and he wondered whether one year was going to be time enough to allow them to divest.
Also, Stec questioned whether it is fair to force people to give up outside careers. He cited Assemblyman John McDonald, D-Cohoes, who is a pharmacist.
“What does his outside income have to do with his legislative duties? Nothing,” Stec said.
It has been 20 years since members of the New York Legislature got a raise, and we’re not opposed to them getting one now.
Stec said he can see why the committee came up with the 15 percent limit, since it mirrors the requirements for members of Congress.
These changes are set to automatically take effect unless the Legislature comes back to pass a bill to stop them.
“I think the likelihood of the Legislature taking action in the next 2-1/2 weeks to stop this is slim to none,” Stec said.
Sen. Betty Little, R-Queensbury, said the pay increase was needed, especially for her downstate colleagues. New York City Council representatives make $140,000.
“What you were seeing is, as soon as they had to leave (the council), they would come to the Assembly and they would switch back and forth,” she said.
Another issue was the low pay of commissioners and heads of agencies, according to Little.
“They were making a lot less than many of the people around them and that’s why many of the commissioners were acting commissioners,” she said.
For example, she believes there were at least 50 people working for the Department of Environmental Conservation who were making more than the commissioner.
Little said her issue is not so much the amount of outside income lawmakers can earn, but transparency and making sure there are no conflicts of interest.
“If you’re a lawyer and you’re representing someone that has business before the state, I don’t think that should be allowed,” she said.
Little said the Legislature benefits from having people of different backgrounds.
“It’s good to have people who know what’s going on in the business world,” she said.