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Op-ed column

Minimum-wage rise may be held hostage to legislative raises

Sunday, November 11, 2012
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Op-ed column


Michael Osbun/Tribune Media
Michael Osbun/Tribune Media

Now that the 2012 elections are over, several post-election rituals are about to ensue. One of these is the “lame-duck” session of the New York State Legislature, so-called because it will be conducted by the retiring membership of the 2011-12 Assembly and Senate.

That is, if you believe the rumors. Because right up until the election, few would admit that a special session of the Legislature was even under consideration. Not to worry; this is part of the ballet of every lame-duck session.

Forget also, if you will, that well over 90 percent of the legislators who were part of the 2011-12 Legislature have been re-elected for the 2013-14 legislative session.

The reason the lame duck definitely will rise is that it offers legislators the unique opportunity to make some potentially unpopular — and perhaps self-serving — decisions two years prior to the next public referendum on their work. Given life’s ever-faster pace and the demonstrably short memory span of the average voter, there is minimal risk that the votes taken now will prove to be a game breaker in the next election.

Legislation is rarely passed only, or even chiefly, on the basis of its objective merits. The omnipresence of competing interest groups dictates that the legislative process consist of a series of deals and exchanges between and among those groups — some overt, some more secretive — often over bills that appear completely unrelated. This is what is being referenced by those who have unappetizingly compared the process of legislating to the manufacture of sausage.

Clashing issues

It is this “art” (or, if you prefer, the less savory description) of deal making that is even more the essence of the lame duck. This time, two topics that appear related but really aren’t — an increase in the state minimum wage and an increase in legislative (and some other governmental) salaries — apparently are on the table. But, even in light of all this, they in no way should be part of the same meal.

Eight hundred eighty thousand or 10.1 percent of workers in New York are keenly aware that this state’s minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, last raised 10 cents in 2008 to conform to the current federally dictated minimum. Eighteen states have a higher one, including neighboring Connecticut ($8.25) and Vermont ($8.46). Some have been indexed to inflation, such as Washington state’s ($9.19 in 2013).

A proposal for a 17.4 percent increase to $8.50 was approved by the Assembly in June, but not even considered by the Senate.

On the other hand, New York’s state legislators are paid a base salary of $79,500 per year. Although this amount has not increased since it was set in 1999, only two states pay their legislators more today — California ($95,290.56) and Pennsylvania ($79,613). In addition, New York legislators are paid a per diem of $171 per full day and $61 per half day when in Albany.

Many legislators in the majority party in each house and some in the minority party also earn an additional stipend for extra work performed as part of their leadership and committee duties. These range from $9,000 for smaller committee posts to $41,500 each for the speaker of the Assembly and president pro-tem of the Senate.

The most commonly reported figure for a new legislative salary level is $100,000, which would amount to a 25 percent increase.

Poll results

Public polls show that 78 percent of New Yorkers favor an increase in the minimum wage. Opposing the measure are some business interests that might be required to boost what they pay their workers. But it’s hard to take their arguments seriously.

Even with the increase, the income earned still doesn’t amount to a livable wage and $8.50 would not appear to be overly generous. Had it just kept pace with inflation the last two decades, it would be $10.

Some of these very same interests willingly do business in international locations where minimum pay is far more generous. For example, Israel pegs its minimum wage to 47 percent of its state average — which, if implemented here would dictate $13.96 as the new hourly standard.

Conversely, the same public polls find that 80 percent oppose an increase in legislative compensation.

Proponents point out that this is only 2 percent annually if computed from the last raise and that the pay level proposed is more commensurate with the responsibility and skills the job entails.

Opponents argue that the Legislature still considers itself “part time,” there are almost no restrictions on legislators’ outside income, they are already among the highest paid in the nation, and the state’s fragile economic condition does not permit an increase at this time.

However, let’s put aside the argument over the relative merits or justifications for each. Just from these brief descriptions, it’s clear that the two don’t belong in the same conversation, let alone the same pages of an omnibus bill.

Politics going on

None of us should be “shocked, shocked that politics is going on here,” to borrow unabashedly from “Casablanca.” However, the specter of legislators effectively setting themselves up as their own interest group to the potential detriment of minimum-wage earners can only be viewed with the greatest contempt.

Yet current indications are that a slightly more generous minimum for many could be effectively held hostage to what amounts to the achievement of a much higher maximum for a very few.

This would not just be wrong in the classic political sense; it would be wholly immoral even when viewed through the jaundiced eyes of a practiced political cynic.

John A. Figliozzi lives in Halfmoon and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.

 
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