Imagine if you could choose the people who decide whether to give you a raise, and how big that raise should be. Then imagine that the money they allocate to you doesn’t come out of their pockets, and that they likely will have no responsibility for the consequences of their decision. This fantasy of every working person is a reality for Albany lawmakers, as the committee they handpicked months ago will soon decide what salary increase they should receive in their paychecks, beginning in January.
The New York State Compensation Committee was created as part of the state budget passed in April 2018. Committee members H. Carl McCall, Thomas DiNapoli, Bill Thompson, and Scott Stringer—all former or current New York State and City comptrollers—were authorized to “make recommendations with respect to adequate levels of compensation, non-salary benefits and allowance” for members of the legislature, statewide elected officials (including DiNapoli, who is currently state comptroller), and other state officers. Janet DiFiore, New York’s chief judge, recused herself from participation shortly after being appointed.
Giving the Compensation Committee the power to enact these pay raises, without ever being voted on or approved by the legislature or governor, appears to be illegal, however. The New York State Constitution states clearly that “no law shall be enacted except by bill,” and that “no bill [shall] be passed or become a law, except by the assent of a majority of the members elected to each branch of the legislature.” The Constitution mandates that no bill can become law unless it goes through both legislative houses and is signed by the governor. It is equally explicit about the spending of public money, which must be appropriated by legislation: “No money shall ever be paid out of the state treasury or any of its funds . . . except in pursuance of an appropriation by law.”
New York’s constitution is clear, then, on who has the authority to make law—it makes no reference to committees. The Compensation Committee represents a transparent attempt by Albany’s political class to get a pay raise without having to expose itself to the unpopular action of voting on it themselves. In his testimony before the committee last month, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie justified his support of a pay raise as a way to “encourage more people to run for public office, participate in the political process and promote democracy.” He made no mention of other ways to achieve this objective without spending more taxpayer money—like enacting strong ethics legislation, addressing flaws in the campaign-finance system, and making it easier for candidates to gain ballot access.
This is not to say that Albany legislators don’t deserve a raise. Perhaps they do; but that’s a question that should be debated by the democratically elected legislators themselves, and put to a public vote. Establishing an advisory committee to make suggestions is customary, but giving it the power to make law and spend public funds is outrageous. State legislators should be ashamed, and New Yorkers appalled.
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