In an ingenious way of getting a pay raise without having to vote for it, New York state legislators created a non-elected, appointed commission to set their salary level, with the commission’s decision to be implemented forthwith, unless the Legislature took an affirmative vote to reverse it.
Now that they’ve opened the door to punting decisions to faceless panels, let’s demand they do the same to enact some needed fiscal reforms they’ve been too cowardly to touch.
It’s not the first time this sleight of hand method had been resorted to in government. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, Congress was under pressure to close superfluous military bases. Voting to do so would have created significant negative pushback on various members of Congress. To sidestep the vote, Congress established the BRAC Commission. Appointed officials would make the ultimate decision on the closures. The legislation creating the commission granted authority to have its findings immediately implemented into law, unless Congress took the affirmative vote to negate it. If it sounds to you that this is a feeble attempt to shield elected officials from accountability, you nailed it. But while the process might seem unseemly, it worked. Bases that otherwise could never be closed, were actually shuttered, thereby saving taxpayers billions of dollars.
The benchmark $79,500 salary for New York lawmakers that was in place for two decades was ripe for an increase. The commission called for an increase in wages to $110,000 in 2019. That raise is to be followed by two additional $10,000 raises over the next two years. But they also added a catch: a limit on outside earnings.
A lawsuit ensued whereby a judge upheld some of the pay raises, but eliminated the limit on income. Lawmakers rejoiced, while public reformers cringed.
But instead of calling for an end to these maneuvers that limit accountability, perhaps we should use it to our advantage and turn it around on these legislators. If a non-elected commission could be impaneled to provide pay wages for politicians, why not create such a panel to implement the type of fiscal reforms that have been desperately sought by taxpayer watchdogs for decades?
I actually called for such a panel in my short-lived run for governor in 2010. I saw how effectively the BRAC Commission worked and realized that elected officials on both sides of the aisle — who are so dependent on special interest donations for their re-elections — just did not have the will to make the type of reforms that would make New York affordable.
My plan had also been influenced by the Simpson/Bowles Commission that was put together in the Obama administration to address spiraling entitlements and the long-term stability of Medicare and Social Security. The commission came up with a number of common sense solutions to keep these programs intact. Unfortunately, there was no enforcement mechanism, so the ideas just faded away. Imagine how much more fiscally sound we would be as a nation today had those suggestions been implemented automatically. Think about how much more affordable New York would be if we could finally modify the Triborough Amendment, so that salary step increases no longer continue after a municipal contract has expired. Or, if we were to eliminate mandatory arbitration, which has given us some police officers on Long Island with $200,000 salaries. Or, if we could eliminate overtime from being factored into a municipal employee’s pension, which dramatically increases taxpayer liability for the remainder of that retiree’s life.
Sure, the teacher, police and municipal unions would go bonkers, but it would be harder to pin these difficult fiscal reforms on any particular individuals. Yes, there would be pressure to have the legislators vote to override the commissions’ suggestions, but that would now require a majority vote to overturn the changes, rather than a majority vote to implement the changes in the first place.
So, the next time legislators have something they really, really want (such as a pay raise), let them create another commission, but condition it on them also including spending reforms in the mix.
Steve Levy is executive director of the Center for Cost Effective Government. He served as Suffolk County executive, as a state assemblyman, and host of “The Steve Levy Radio Show.”