By Jeffrey Page
In Zest of Dec. 15, I wondered whether the pay of New York’s state senators should be withheld when they ignore the public and basically go out on strike as they did last spring. Now, some readers have joined the discussion.
First, a quick review. The senators got into a hissy fit over who was going to run the Senate. They said this was an ethics issue lest anyone conclude that it was a political matter. Then they basically closed down for a month when the warring sides could not reach an agreement. Even when Governor Paterson ordered the Senate to convene to do the people’s business, a move within his power, the distinguished ladies and gentlemen of the Senate would assemble in their chamber, have the clerk call the roll, and with a quorum present they’d entertain a measure to adjourn. This they did time after time.
Despite such behavior, we pay our senators $79,000 a year, making them among the highest paid state legislators in the country.
The Dec. 15 Zest piece suggested that Paterson dock the senators’ pay when they refuse to report for work, and that if Senate members had a problem with that, they could sue. Wouldn’t it be fun to listen to a senator or two, or all of them, swear to be truthful, sit down in the witness chair, and tell the sad story of how much good they do and how they are suffering without a paycheck. Would some even threaten to quit if they didn’t get their salaries? Not likely.
From one Zest reader comes the caution that 62 senators suing for their pay would be a very expensive, time consuming proposition. He also notes that a salary for senators is guaranteed in the state Constitution. And there it is, Article III, Section 6: “Each member of the legislature shall receive for his or her services a like annual salary, to be fixed by law.” Which means that that $79,000 could be un-fixed by law. Of course it would take a legislator or two with conviction to introduce such a measure.
Do you know of any senator willing to do it? I don’t. But let the word go forth: The people are looking for a few radicals in the legislature to head up a cause. Any takers?
Another reader thinks the senators deserve to be paid but says, “It’s time to enact a law that says members of the Senate and Assembly must earn salaries no larger than the salary of the average person whom he/she represents.” I didn’t do the district-by-district math, but I learned this month that the $79,000 base pay for state legislators is 48 percent higher than the average pay of $38,000 for all New Yorkers. This, according to Census data. They even get paid to cover the cost of getting to Albany. Does your boss give you money to get to and from work?
The reader ends with a nice populist flourish: “Let these [senators] learn how to wash their own cars, clean their own houses, mow their own lawns, and shop using coupons.”
Contempt for the Senate gets juicier with a suggestion by a reader named Steve that our elected politicians get merit pay instead of a standard salary for all. After all, many of these men and women have jabbered for years about the need for merit pay for teachers.
“Let our political leaders produce something useful before being paid,” Steve says. “If any of them don’t like such an arrangement, they would be free to seek employment elsewhere.” To which I would add: They don’t even have to give two weeks notice.
What do you think will happen on Election Day in 11 months? Despite the disgust people felt for their senators during their springtime power play, a man in Warwick believes people will complain about the Legislature all the way to the polls, where they will decide that their own individual senators are not such bad guys after all. And nothing will change.
I think he’s probably right – unless people are as angry as they claim to be.
Best wishes to all for a happy new year.
Jeffrey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org