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PLANET ALBANY: IT'S FAR OUT

It is official: Albany is its own planet.

Astronomers have yet to confirm that the state capital has separated from Earth into its own orbit. But recent developments confirm what most folks long suspected. Those running state government do not live in the same world we do.

The three-men-in-a-room who run the state and the 210 lawmakers who pledge allegiance are a separate species: Albanus Apartfromus. They may look like homo sapiens, stand erect and speak our language. But they are different.

The latest evidence is their answer to pleas to fix the most broken government of any state in America.

The remedy reportedly being kicked around the collective Albany brainpan: Give us a raise.

No good-government group or citizens panel ever suggested a pay hike as a cure to Albany's ills. I don't know anyone who thinks it will recapture our faith or short-circuit our cynicism.

Yet there it is: Show us the money. In return, they will stop taking extra pay for sitting on do-nothing committees.

Lawmakers here make more than in all but two states. None of them are counting nickels. Low pay for legislators is not why budgets have been late for 20 years, why Medicaid costs cripple counties, why schools aren't fairly funded. It is not the reason we pay more taxes than anywhere else.

The problem isn't that they don't make enough money. It's that they make too much, in salary and perks, for what amounts to part-time work.

We have 210 lawmakers who don't do much but elbow for face time with the two party bosses. Or they wait for the three kings -- party leaders Shelly Silver, Joe Bruno and the governor -- to hammer out deals for them to rubber-stamp. Half of them have time for another job. For some, the Legislature is their second job.

The $79,500 base pay -- most make more -- doesn't include perks, from cars paid for with campaign cash to $143 daily expense money. It may be a lawmaker's biggest challenge, figuring out how to blow $143 a day on lunch and cabs. For most of us, 143 bucks buys a week's groceries.

Forget the salary. The expense chits add up to $37,180 a year. That's more than most families in Buffalo make. Seriously. The median income in the city is $24,536. A state lawmaker gets more than that in free eats. And they want a raise?

But lawmakers do not live on bread alone. They need vacations, too.

A story by News reporter Tom Precious noted that Cheektowaga's Paul Tokasz junketed to Greece, Tonawanda's Robin Schimminger forayed to Taiwan.

I had no idea that Cheektowaga had a foreign policy. Or that Tonawanda needed to normalize relations with Taiwan.

The trips look to skeptical eyes like an excuse for some R&R, paid by lobbyists who want to buy a business edge.

Schimminger didn't return a phone call. Tokasz said what looks like a big fat Greek vacation was a business trip.

"I was trying to understand how the geopolitical situation in Greece might (benefit) the state economy," he said, with a straight face.

Has it?

"I can't pinpoint a specific benefit," admitted Tokasz, party boss Silver's right-hand man.

Unfortunately, Tokasz's trip was cut short by a death in the family.

"There may have been fun things on the agenda," he allowed, "but I didn't get to do them."

On behalf of all citizens, I thank local lawmakers for their valiant attempts to formalize relations between Western New York and distant lands. They should be sure to mention it, in making their case for a raise.

e-mail: desmonde@buffnews.com

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