BY CAM MacDONALD
In light of the state government’s “extremely precarious financial position,” New York’s state lawmakers, judges, statewide elected officials and certain gubernatorial appointees should not receive pay raises in the next four years, a state commission says.
“Granting raises to public servants, no matter how much they might otherwise deserve them,” the commission wrote, “is simply not possible at this time.”
Since every level of government is facing the same “precarious” situation, the finding by the Commission on Legislative, Judicial & Executive Compensation creates an added rationale for freezing government pay at every level. For now, however, municipalities and school districts are on the hook for contractually driven pay hikes that are already straining their finances and forcing talk of layoffs.
In a November 11 report (made public yesterday), the seven-member Compensation Commission wrote that in light of the state’s fiscal outlook, it was “constrained from recommending” raises. The commission was created by the Legislature (under a constitutionally dubious statute) in 2015, and empowered to hike the pay for various state officials once every four years.
In ruling out raises, the commission cited the state’s current and anticipated budget gaps and high unemployment rate stemming from “the extreme economic shock” caused by COVID. They point to New York’s new economic reality, in which recovery to pre-COVID tax revenues and employment levels are potentially years away.
The commission highlights a major difference between how the state is shielding its own finances while leaving local governments and school districts to continue paying raises under union contracts inked under very different circumstances.
Governor Cuomo has temporarily postponed scheduled raises for certain unionized state employees until December 31, but the state’s political subdivisions, which must follow the state’s rules, are still bound by contractual pay schedules that often require automatic longevity increases as well as raises in base pay. Some school districts have found themselves simultaneously giving raises and making layoffs. In at least one instance, a school district that was laying off workers had to also give raises to its teachers despite the fact that their union contract had expired.
As E.J. McMahon wrote here as the pandemic was unfolding in March, the state Legislature could (and should) enact a public-sector pay freeze to postpone any contractual pay freezes while the state’s economy and public finances remain frayed by COVID. Such a freeze would save $1.9 billion in the first year and go a long way toward helping local governments and school districts rightsize their budgets.
In 2015, as part of the state budget, the Legislature created the commission to meet every four years to set the pay for judges, state lawmakers and the governor’s appointees. That year it met its December 31st deadline and gave raises to state judges.
The commission made recommendations for incremental increases to supreme court justice salaries to match 100 percent of a federal district court judge as of April 1, 2019, or $210,900. Non-supreme court justices are paid a percentage of the supreme court justice salary ranging from 95 percent down to 90 percent.
The following year the process broke down for legislators, statewide elected officials and the governor’s appointed commissioners when the Governor’s representatives tried placing outside income restrictions on legislators.
The Legislature created a separate committee in 2018 that raised lawmaker salaries from $79,500 to $110,000. Two subsequent $10,000 raises to take effect in 2020 and 2021 if budgets were passed timely were voided by a state court judge, along with outside income limits imposed by the committee that the court deemed beyond the committee’s legislated authority.
That same committee increased the Comptroller and Attorney General salaries in three annual increments from $151,500 to $220,000 effective January 1, 2021.
In 2019, the Legislature gave the Governor and Lieutenant Governor raises during their elected terms in violation of the state constitution consistent with the 2018 committee’s recommendations. Those raises are set to top out at $250,000 for the Governor, and $220,000 for the Lieutenant Governor on January 1, 2021.
Cameron J. “Cam” Macdonald is the Empire Center’s director of projects and a fellow.