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WHY AN EXCEPTION ON PAY LAG FOR LEGISLATORS' PAYCHECKS? IN SOME AREAS, ALBANY'S COST-CUTTING IS TIMID

AFTER NIXING other money-saving proposals put forth by Gov. Cuomo earlier this month, the State Legislature's decision to subject its staff to the same salary deferral system imposed on other state workers was the least it could do.

Of course, if lawmakers were really serious, they could go even further. They could start by subjecting their own paychecks to the same lag plan.

And they could follow up with a move to trim some of the more than 4,000 staffers the Legislature employs.

The one-week deferral of Legislature staff salaries will save about $2.4 million in the current fiscal year. Along with $135 million saved from the deferral on pay for other state workers, it becomes part of the effort to eliminate a $1 billion state deficit before the fiscal year ends on March 31.

Unfortunately, none of the deferral money represents a real savings. It is merely a postponement of a fiscal obligation.

Rather than force workers to take five days off without pay, as Cuomo proposed, the program approved by the Legislature means one paycheck for the year will be delayed until the employee retires or otherwise leaves the state payroll. In a sense, it's the worst of both worlds: Workers miss a paycheck, but the state won't get the benefit of a permanent saving.

The deferral is the type of fiscal gimmick that both Cuomo and legislative leaders vowed would not be employed this year. It also is the type of chicanery that eventually must catch up with the state and that causes Wall Street to look askance. But if it works for now, that's all the Legislature leaders seem to care about.

In imposing the payroll deferral on legislative workers -- who are separate from the state's administrative work force and who do not fall subject to normal budgetary constraints -- Assembly Speaker Mel Miller said it was necessary to show that the Legislature's staffers are treated like all others.

But while they are gripped by this spirit of fairness, the 211 lawmakers could also find another target for the payroll deferral: themselves. The savings from their joining in might not be overwhelming, given the relatively small number of paychecks involved. But a self-imposed hit would at least symbolize the Legislature's willingness to take the medicine it dishes out to others.

And a direct hit on their own wallets, even if only temporary, might drive home the seriousness of the state's fiscal dilemma for any who still consider budget balancing an abstract exercise.

Miller and Senate Majority Leader Ralph Marino also could demonstrate a more egalitarian philosophy of management by finding a way to reduce a legislative staff that is clearly bloated.

Does each member of the Assembly and Senate really need an average of 19 staff people to help draft laws and send out press releases?

When prison guards and other front-line state workers are among 619 laid off this week as part of the budget-cutting package, shouldn't the Legislature share that pain by cutting some of its front-line staff?

In all, 2,000 state workers will be laid off and another 4,000 slots cut through attrition and early retirement by the time the state's current fiscal year ends three months from now.

Surely, with other state departments taking such heavy hits, the public can be served by somewhat fewer than 4,000 patronage staffers walking the legislative halls.

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