The BenCen Blog

Informing Public Discourse in the Hudson Valley and Across the State

Month: January 2019

The Mess of New York Lawmaker Pay

This post originally ran as an opinion column in the Gotham Gazette and has been re-posted here with the publisher’s permission.

New Yorkers have been upset by state legislators’ compensation for more than 200 years. At the 1821 constitutional convention, Ezekiel Bacon, a former member of the Assembly and of Congress, called the pay issue “…a hobby horse of ambitious demagogues and peddling politicians, that caused the great questions that affected the vital interest of the state too often to be overlooked.” The current debate is nothing new. We’ve never liked how much legislators are paid. We’ve never liked how the matter is decided.

At first the decision was left to the Legislature and the Governor (who was then far less powerful than today). Public distress at the members’ generosity to themselves led to the specification of a $3 per diem rate ($56.28 in today’s money) in the state constitution by the convention of 1821. This made the pay alterable only by constitutional amendment, which required public ratification after passage in two successive legislative sessions or adoption by a following convention. The Governor, with no role in the amending process, was denied formal involvement. The people—always skeptical, sometimes hostile—were left with a decisive voice.

No constitutional convention held after 1821 during the period that legislative pay was still constitutionally specified—in 1846, 1867, 1894, 1915, and 1938—succeeded in increasing it. Some delegates, like the publisher Horace Greeley in 1867, thought public service was sufficiently rewarded by a legislator’s “consciousness of honorable usefulness” and the “gratitude’ of other citizens. If provided at all, those who held this view believed, pay for legislators should be sufficient only to cover expenses. At later conventions most delegates, many of whom had been or were senators or Assembly members, voiced support for better compensation for legislators, but failed to act on the matter because of the  expense, or because of fear that public hostility to a pay increase would lead to overall defeat of their work at the polls. Indeed, the constitution proposed in 1915, the only one offered by a convention that included a pay increase for legislators, was rejected by the public at referendum.

In the hundred years between 1846 and the end of World War II, voters did approve two amendments offered by the Legislature providing for members’ pay increases. The first of these, passed in 1874 and supported by both Democratic Governor John T. Hoffman and Republican Governor John Adams Dix, increased legislators’ annual compensation to $1,500 ($33,030 in current dollars) from the maximum of $3 day for 100 days ($8,318 in current dollars) set by the 1846 convention. This was the first specification of legislative pay as an annual salary, not as a per diem for what was then still universally regarded as part-time work. In 1911 voters defeated an amendment calling for a salary increase to $2,500. This increase ($35,966 in current dollars) was finally passed in 1927 as part of a broad package of reforms championed by Democratic Governor Alfred E. Smith.

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A New Comprehensive Plan for Poughkeepsie

Looking to the Future:

Twenty years ago the City of Poughkeepsie debuted a Comprehensive Plan meant to be a road map for revitalization. If you look at Poughkeepsie today you can see, broadly, how well or poorly Poughkeepsie followed its own plan. The past 4 posts, linked in the box at right, have looked at how the city envisioned itself in 1998, and graded the implementation of the 1998 Comprehensive Plan using the metrics contained within the plan. The final tally was a failing grade of 41%.

A BenCen Series
How Poughkeepsie’s

Past has Handcuffed its Future

Peer cities in the Hudson Valley have recovered from the Great Recession. Why not Poughkeepsie?

At the end of the last post I wrote that it is unfair to hold current policymakers responsible for failing to bring the comprehensive plan to fruition, nor is it fair to hold the current city leaders accountable for complying with a plan that is well past its expiration date. The solution though is not to give up. The solution is to create a new comprehensive plan to move the city forward, learning from the mistakes of the past. Residents and stakeholders need to reimagine a collective vision for the city, and a plan needs to be drawn up with realistic, actionable and measurable steps to achieve that vision.

This post will explore some of the more obvious areas that the Poughkeepsie may want to address, as well as some non-obvious things that might be included in a new comprehensive plan.
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