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Editorial: State legislators seeking a pay increase must agree to limits on outside income

New York State legislators are scandalized. The lawmakers, members of the most corrupt legislature in the country, don’t like that they are being required to agree to ethics reform in order to get a raise. Taxpayers, on the other hand, cannot be losing much sleep.

The New York Commission on Legislative, Judicial & Executive Compensation on Tuesday rejected an increase in lawmakers’ base salary of $79,500, based on objections by appointees of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. Unless something changes between now and the end of the year, that blocks any possibility of a raise before 2019. A sitting Legislature cannot increase its own salary and a new one, with a two-year lease, will be installed on Jan. 1.

Interestingly – and not coincidentally – there is the potential for “something else.” Cuomo’s delegates to the commission have indicated a willingness to reconsider a raise if lawmakers approve an ethics agreement that bans outside income for legislators.

That would have to happen in a special session within the next six weeks if lawmakers hope for raises that take effect next year. They should put aside their sore feelings and make the deal. It’s a fair trade.

Legislators are plainly desperate for a raise. Even the Senate’s Republicans – the people who are supposed to be in favor of restraint and lower costs of government – are fully on board. Majority Leader John Flanagan went so far as to issue a joint press release with Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Democrat, complaining that they are being asked to enact more stringent ethics laws in exchange for a taxpayer-funded raise. Do they think it should be free?

And, as Cuomo took pleasure in observing, these are part-time jobs that allow for much more in outside income. That’s a better deal than most working people can ever secure.

What is more, this Legislature has documented its affinity for corruption over and over. The most recent and significant events were the separate felony convictions of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. But they aren’t alone. Many other legislators and elected officials have been convicted of crimes related to the abuse of their offices.

The fact is that corruption has long been woven into the fabric of state government. It’s in the culture. Nowhere is that demonstrated more clearly than in legislators’ grim refusal to be serious about ethics reform. They toy with it, occasionally doing something modest – the least they can get away with – declare purity and get back to fleecing the system.

Why did they not clamor, themselves, to enact serious, far-reaching reforms after the arrests of Silver and Skelos? Silver’s case, in particular, demonstrates the need to eliminate the influence of outside income. It was his work as a lawyer that allowed him to game the high public office he held for 21 years.

Legislators may stamp their feet about it, but the linkage between a pay raise and outside income is not only fair but necessary. An absolute ban may be more than Cuomo can secure, but it’s an appropriate goal, especially if legislators are given a substantial pay increase in return.

Such a trade would surely change the composition of the Legislature. Lawyers with substantial practices may not want to give up that income, for example. That’s fine; public service isn’t for everyone. More important than attracting high-income New Yorkers to the Legislature is attracting those who actually want to do the job and who understand the need to control the potentially corrupting influence of outside money.

It’s not too late for lawmakers to get over their snit and agree to a special session where they deal forthrightly with the issue of outside income. But if they don’t want to, then no raise. And prosecutors will have plenty to keep their public corruption units running full tilt.

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