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NY Legislature

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx, speaks with assembly members in the Assembly Chamber at the Capitol on Thursday, June 16, 2016, in Albany, N.Y. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink)

The leader of the state Assembly is making his argument in support of pay raises for legislators.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie wrote a five-page letter to the state Commission on Legislative, Judicial and Executive Compensation outlining his case for a pay hike. Legislators currently earn a base salary of $79,500 a year — a level that hasn't been altered since 1999.

"Legislators are not insulated from the same financial pressures that are experienced by their constituents," Heastie wrote. "They too must finance college loans, support the costs of child care and the well-being of elderly parents, and take care of loved ones at home."

He also contends that the lack of a pay raise is more difficult for the more than 100 members of the Assembly who represent parts of downstate New York, where the cost of living tends to be higher compared to upstate.

The commission is examining whether to raise salaries for legislators, judges and the executive branch — the governor and agency commissioners. 

One proposal would increase salaries for these officials by 47 percent. For legislators, that would mean a bump from $79,500 a year to $116,900.

That proposal, which was put forth by a commission member appointed by Heastie, has been panned by some lawmakers and candidates running for state Legislature.

Assemblyman Gary Finch, a Republican, came out against the plan.

"I think to go from 1999 until now without a pay raise is not a good thing, particularly for those who absolutely depend on it," Finch, R-Springport, said in a recent interview. "But to now come up with a 47 percent increase not only is borderline outrageous, it's a little bit unbelievable."

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Finch was mentioned in Heastie's letter, although not by name.

Heastie argued that while serving in the state Legislature is considered a part-time position, it's actually a full-time job. He said most legislators are "unable to hold other employment, because of the time commitments required by their legislative duties and the demands of the position that can occur on short notice."

He acknowledged the Assembly members with outside employment, including a "funeral home director." Finch was the owner and chief operating officer of Brew-Finch Funeral Homes. He's now a part-time funeral director.

Aside from the benefits for current members of the state Legislature, Heastie also believes a pay hike would make the job more attractive to future candidates. 

A low salary, Heastie contends, "will eventually discourage qualified people from pursuing those offices."

"That is particularly dangerous for an elected legislature that must represent all segments of the state's population," he said. "Low legislative salaries compared to other government positions and the private sector tend to discourage members of the middle and working classes, particularly people with families, from seeking public office.

"The people who can afford to pursue these positions will disproportionately become the retired, the independently wealthy and younger people who plan to serve for a short time and then move to the private sector."

The commission is scheduled to release its final report in mid-November — after the elections. Members of the state Assembly and Senate are up for re-election this year. 

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