Can Higher Salaries in Albany Stop Corruption? Sheldon Silver Is Willing to Find Out

Sheldon Silver is willing to trade less Albany corruption for a higher salary.
Sheldon Silver is willing to trade less Albany corruption for a higher salary.
Photo credit: New York NOW via Compfight cc

The perennial call for higher salaries in the New York legislature was heard again this week, although it's probably more of a whisper at this point.

As the Daily News reported on Monday, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver might ask for a wage bump for himself and his colleagues.

It's a proposal that never, ever wins a lot of voters' hearts. If there's one thing we commoners love to do, it's bitch about the salaries of elected officials. It's not only fun, it's nonpartisan fun, the kind of thing your vaguely political roommate with the Ron Paul stickers and patchouli stink can get behind without actually having to know a lot about anything.

What kind of a bump would they be looking for? No one's really saying. In past years, when the proposal was debated more openly, lawmakers were aiming to breach the six-figure mark, somewhere around, or exactly at, $100,000 a year.

The current salary for all lawmakers is $79,500, making New York legislators among the highest paid in the country. They're second only to California -- whose legislators earn around $90,000 -- and they make more than 10 times what Texas officials do, according to figures from the National Conference of State Legislators.

The job is nominally a part-time gig, but it's often full-time in practice. That's frequently offered as one justification for making sure lawmakers are paid well. (Lawmakers serving on certain committees can earn additional stipends, and there's also a $172 per diem for when they're actually in session.) But there's another common justification for a salary increase: to help reduce corruption.

Leaving aside that this argument boils down, essentially, to bribing our elected officials so they don't take bribes, there's a certain logic to it. These folks hold a lot of power. If they're just scraping by -- and busting their asses in the meantime -- there's more temptation, the thinking goes, to make a little extra scratch on the side.

We could probably use something like that in New York, since the Empire State has seen a parade of criminal charges against elected officials in recent years. But Blair Horner, legislative director for the New York Public Interest Research Group, an ethics watchdog, doesn't buy this argument. Salaries aren't the reason the state assembly seems like an episode of Boardwalk Empire, he says.

"It's because there are no effective cops walking the beat," Horner says. "The ethics cops in Albany are all at the doughnut shop."

State law prevents legislators from giving themselves a pay raise; the only way they can make it happen is to vote for an increase for the next round of lawmakers, which is why this talk always surfaces just after an election.

As Horner points out, the discussions usually involve some negotiation between lawmakers and the governor. In exchange for signing the bill, the governor traditionally asks for something in return. Last time around, in 1999, the prize extracted by then-governor George Pataki was a loosening of rules on charter schools. That came in exchange for a salary boost from $57,500 to where we're at today.

That's not exactly the ideal way to make laws, though, in Horner's view. "There's probably a better way to do business than holding someone's salary hostage to a political outcome," he says. And if the increase is going to be justified with the idea that it's a way to clean up Albany, then there better be some real concessions.

"If it's going to be framed as ethics reform," Horner says, "they should do ethics reform."

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