Capitol Connection: Poison Pill with a Sugar Coating

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When Republicans in the New York State Assembly want to get noticed, they have to do something outrageous—someone once said that if they were to ride naked, on fire, on an elephant through the halls of the Legislature, they might get three seconds on TV.

Let’s face it: there are three guys who call the shots in the Legislature, the famous “three men in a room”; the governor, the speaker of the Assembly and the Senate majority leader. If a freshman legislator wants to get the attention of his constituents and the state media, he has to do something that will make people look up and say, “Golly gee whiz, Martha, look at that.”

That is exactly what Assemblyman Sean Hanna, an obscure upstate freshman legislator has done. He has proposed that the members of the state Legislature take a whopping cut in pay and show up for a much shorter session. Of course that isn’t going to happen. In fact, legislators are always sniffing around for more pay, something their constituents hate. So when Hanna comes along and proposes that they give up around a third of their $79,500 (before perks) income, he will be about as welcome as a skunk in the basement.

I suspect, however, that Hanna is no hero. That’s because the devil is in the details. In order to get their previous raises and keep the good government groups off their backs, legislators had to give up much of their license to steal honestly. There are now all kinds of rules about what they can and can’t do. For example, they can’t appear before state agencies representing legal clients and they must—to a degree—disclose how much income they are getting from outside sources.

According to Hanna, if they took less pay, they could be more productive as good private sector citizens. Presumably, then, some of the rules would have to be relaxed.

If you asked the citizens of this state whether stripping their legislators of a good chunk of their pay is a good idea, they would overwhelmingly say yes. After all, poll after poll shows that people hate the Legislature. Many people think that their legislators work far less than full time and make a lot of money on the outside from law and consulting practices.

In that they are correct. These legislators, who only show up in Albany for a few days a week between January and June or July, believe they deserve the hundred grand that most of them are now getting. They will talk to you about all the time they are in their offices and the time they devote to their communities. In some cases that is true, but I daresay in most it is not. These folks have a lot of staff to do much of the scut work while they are out working at their other jobs.

I fear Hanna is offering us a poison pill. I suspect he wants to go back to the good old days when no eyebrows were raised about conflicts of interest.

Even though his plan won’t happen, it is still worth thinking about. Many people wonder why we even need a Legislature, since only three people are calling the shots and the others are playing make-believe. The Legislature is a play in which everyone should have a part. If you ask the leaders and their members about any of this, they will tell you that they are giving their leaders instructions about what to do. That is, of course, nonsense.

Right now, Shelly Silver and Dean Skelos are negotiating with Gov. Andrew Cuomo about all kinds of things. When those negotiations are complete, they will go back to their various conferences and say, “Well, ladies and gentlemen, I did the best I could,” and their conferences will eat what they have been given to eat. But don’t let anyone tell you that these people are in charge. They are happy to have their jobs and when they die, they will have their titles on their tombstones.

Good try, Hanna. Enjoy your 15 minutes and thank you for the proposal.

Alan S. Chartock is president and CEO of WAMC/Northeast Public Radio and an executive publisher at The Legislative Gazette.

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