With the holiday season in full swing, New York state lawmakers gathered at the Capitol on Thursday to give themselves a present: A $32,000 taxpayer-funded pay raise.
The state Legislature narrowly passed a bill increasing lawmakers’ annual salary from $110,000 to $142,000 next year, which will make them the highest paid state legislators in the country — surpassing California, where lawmakers are paid about $120,000.
The Senate approved the salary increase by a 33-23 vote, which barely surpassed the 32 minimum votes needed for passage. The Assembly voted 81-52 in favor of the bill.
The 29% pay hike drew criticism from some legislators — mostly Republicans — who said it sent a poor message to increase their pay when many families are struggling to make ends meet, as well as legislative staffers who criticized legislators for failing to boost their salaries, too.
But Democratic leaders defended the increase, saying it was necessary to attract the best and brightest to Albany.
“As I've always said, I think legislators work very hard, even some of the Republicans,” said Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx). “Again, there's no compensation you can give for people to be away from their families. I think legislators work hard.”
I think legislators work very hard, even some of the Republicans.
The pay hike was the lone measure put to a vote Thursday during a special session convened solely to approve it — despite late, unsuccessful efforts by Gov. Kathy Hochul’s office to convince lawmakers to take up other measures that would have further changed the state’s 2019 bail-reform laws.
Hochul, who has previously pledged support for a legislative pay raise, is expected to sign it into law.
New York’s 150 Assembly members and 63 state senators currently make their base salary in addition to a $183 per diem for each night they spend in Albany, which is meant to cover accommodations and food. About a dozen lawmakers also receive stipends for leadership roles.
Their current $110,000 salary took effect in 2019 and was set by a state pay commission the year before, when lawmakers left it up to an outside panel to set their salary..
But future increases that would have taken the salary to $120,000 in 2020 and $130,000 in 2021 were invalidated by a state court, which said the pay commission exceeded its authority by linking those hikes to a limit on outside income.
Prior to 2019, the lawmakers’ base salary had been $79,000 since 1999.
Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) said the bigger bump was an attempt to keep up with inflation.
It will also include a $35,000 cap on the amount of outside income lawmakers can earn, though that won’t take effect until 2025. Stewart-Cousins said the delay will ensure that those who were elected last month — who ran assuming they could earn unlimited outside income — won’t be unfairly affected.
The controversial vote came less than two months after Election Day, when all 213 state lawmakers were on the ballot. Stewart-Cousins claimed the timing was due to a lingering court case surrounding the pay commission, which wasn’t decided until last month. But that decision only had to do with the validity of the commission itself, not with the pay raises that were previously invalidated.
“I think the fact that there was still some kind of nebulousness around pay raises was something that we were very conscious of, and that has now been resolved,” Stewart-Cousins said.
During the vote Thursday, Republicans repeatedly criticized Democrats for scheduling the vote after Election Day — and a full two years before they will face voters again.
“This issue wasn’t on the ballot [last month],” said Assemblymember Mark Walczyk, a Republican from Watertown. “It didn’t come up before then, so you couldn’t be judged on it.”
This issue wasn’t on the ballot [last month]. It didn’t come up before then, so you couldn’t be judged on it.
State Sen. Mike Martucci, an Orange County Republican, said the entire vote was a slap in the face to New Yorkers, noting the median household income in the state is around $75,000.
“Voting yourself a $32,000 pay raise is not caring for your constituents,” said Martucci, who did not run for re-election this year. “It’s downright disrespectful.”
Stewart-Cousins acknowledged the awkwardness of lawmakers voting themselves a pay raise, but suggested their hands are tied: The state constitution grants the Legislature the responsibility to set its own pay.
“I don't know when people would ever feel comfortable about what we do as it relates to our compensation, but we're the only ones who can do it,” she said. “And here we are.”