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State legislators hope backdoor bid for a pay raise protects them from responsibility

The word “cheesy” comes to mind. So do “cowardly,” “manipulative” and, possibly, “unconstitutional.” New York lawmakers don’t care. They want a raise but they don’t want to have to ask for it. So they came up with a cheesy, cowardly, manipulative and possibly unconstitutional way of getting it.

It’s hard to blame state legislators for wanting a raise. They haven’t had one since 1999 and until recently, frankly, didn’t come close to deserving one. In almost every way, they showed their disdain for their constituents, in particular by ignoring their April 1 budget deadline for 20 years. How could they justify a raise when they refused to perform their most fundamental task competently?

They’ve done a better job since Andrew M. Cuomo was elected governor in 2010. Each year since then, they have met their deadline, unless you count this year, when they missed it by a few hours. Yes, it’s an ugly process, but they have, in that regard, treated their budget obligations as though they were important and they showed at least a basic level of respect to the state’s voters.

It’s too bad they don’t do the same thing about the raises they want.

Instead of simply voting for a raise – a public action for which voters can judge them – lawmakers secretly created a convoluted system in which an appointed panel will decide whether they need a raise, leaving lawmakers to act only if they decide they don’t really want more money. Cheesy, no?

And it gets worse. Because of the wording of the law creating the commission, lawmakers could be setting themselves up for two raises: on Jan. 1, 2017, and again on Jan. 1, 2019. Manipulative, yes?

There are several ways of evaluating the slippery bid for more money. One is that paying them more encourages them to make more of this job than was envisioned for part-time legislators. Many have other sources of income that make the need for raises dubious.

Prominent among those legislators, though, was former Speaker Sheldon Silver, whose outside income became the target of an investigation that resulted in federal charges involving bribery and kickbacks. It’s fair to suggest that if lawmakers are going to get raises, there be prohibitions on outside income or, at least, strict requirements for full disclosure about the sources and amounts of that income – all sources, all amounts. There should also be a requirement to toughen the state’s ethics rules, given the array of state officials, including legislative leaders, who have run seriously afoul of the law. That’s a way to earn a raise.

The main thing, though, is for lawmakers to come out of their hidey-holes and explain to their constituents why they should fork over more money for their maintenance. Make the case. Do it forthrightly. If they think they deserve more money, they should at least have the decency to explain why.

They won’t. The bill creating this commission has been signed into law, so now all that lawmakers have to do is wait for it to recommend a pay increase and then sit back and do nothing.

The big question is whether this gambit is even constitutional. One lawmaker, Republican Assemblyman Andy Goodell of Chautauqua County, is sure it isn’t. A Manhattan Democrat, Herman Farrell, head of the Assembly Ways and Means Committee, insists it is, despite a constitutional provision requiring lawmakers to vote on any pay raise.

No doubt, the question will end up in court. Of course, lawmakers could honorably avoid the question simply by voting for a pay raise. It’s straightforward and it would remove the constitutional cloud. As voters have the opportunity over the coming months, they should ask their representatives what they’re so afraid of.