As a member of the New York State Assembly, it should be clear to all that things have gotten better over the last two years in state government, under the strong leadership of Governor Andrew Cuomo. Two on-time state budgets, balanced without new taxes; eliminating the MTA payroll tax for small businesses and schools; making a wise commitment to address our overdue infrastructure needs such as the Tappan Zee Bridge; passing a tough new ethics law; expanding the DNA databank to catch criminals and exonerate the innocent - all of these and more are positive steps in Albany.
In light of some legislative successes, unfortunately, talk has surfaced regarding pay raises for State Legislators, to be passed at the end of this year.
This is absolutely the wrong time for a pay raise.
The members of the Legislature have gone since 1999 without an increase in base salary; I know personally how hard it is to make ends meet in Westchester, given the bills we have to pay, for those of us like me who are not personally wealthy. My New York City colleagues compare our base pay of $79,500 to their City Council compatriots, who receive $112,000. per year, and they complain bitterly.
But serving in public office should never be about "us" - those elected. It must always be about "you" - the residents. This nation, and this state, still endure a difficult economic time. Many are unemployed; many more are under-employed, all worrying every day about simply staying afloat: keeping their homes, paying their bills. They certainly do not want to hear state legislators proclaiming that they are being treated "unfairly" without a pay increase, when many in the society are struggling to survive.
The accomplishments of 2011 and 2012 in the state government are real, but the unfinished agenda of business is exceedingly long, starting with relieving the burden of unusually high property taxes on suburban and upstate homeowners. New York State places more unfunded mandates on local governments and school districts than any other state in the nation, a construct of both Republicans and Democrats in Albany dating back 50 years or so. Correcting this imbalance will take more than a year or two of good results.
The voters will reject any pay raise if they cannot connect it to consistent positive results. A premature push will engender a political backlash; voters will feel that legislators are "out of touch" with the way they feel. Any progress made over the past two years "on the road back" to proper governance will be utterly lost.
Some of the disconnect is the difference between New York City voters and their representatives, and those who live in the suburbs and upstate. New York City homeowners do not live with a crushing property tax burden; the large commercial real estate base in the city - and a local personal income tax - funds local governance. Outside of New York City, nearly every conversation on government begins with the outcry over the size of one's own property tax bill. This is no time to focus away from the core tasks of tax relief, job development and effective service delivery.
Whether or not legislators "deserve" a pay raise is a very subjective thing, based on the individual's point of view. Overall, however, there is still so much work to be done to solve problems, and clean up Albany's mess - and that task must come first.
I hope we will not see a pay raise bill this November - it is the wrong time to do so. If it does come up as a stand-alone measure (I fear it will be lumped with an increase in the minimum wage, and with a package of tax cuts to aid small businesses, tying the fates of all three ideas into one vote), the only proper response will be to vote NO.