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Speculation about pay raises for state legislators heats up

ALBANY -- If it's the holiday season and a new legislative session is scheduled to begin at the Capitol in a month, it must be time for one thing: speculation about pay raises for state legislators.

In a ritual repeated every two years, word seems to spread this time of year of secret deals to try to push through an 11th hour pay raise for legislators. In some years, the speculation was accurate, and there were active talks to raise the pay levels. But the moves were either shot down by governors or the political realities of the times, and the last legislative pay hike was in 1999.

The chatter is fully under way again now. Though highly unlikely -- the Assembly has no plans to return to Albany until January -- that has not stopped the speculation.

Of course, state officials are not doing anything to control the speculation. They avoid clear, definitive statements to rule out pay hikes either in December or next year.

"I think it's unlikely," Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, said Tuesday of the chances for a pay raise bill getting passed in December.

And Gov.-elect Andrew Cuomo would not rule out a legislative pay hike next year. "I've heard no talk about that," Cuomo said Tuesday about a possible pay hike bill in December.

Would he consider signing a pay hike bill after he takes office?

"Next year, we would look at it," Cuomo responded. The state faces a $9 billion deficit next year, and Cuomo is talking of at least freezing the salaries of state workers and cutting a range of popular programs, including state aid to public schools.

Lawmakers are not able to grant themselves a raise in the current session in which they are serving. So if a pay raise does not happen before a new, two-year term starts in January, their pay could not be hiked until at least 2013. Lawmakers get a base salary of $79,500, though many get stipends for committee posts or leadership titles.

Typically, legislators get salary increases as part of some other deals. In 1999, it was tied to raises for state judges and then-Gov. George Pataki's demand for approval of charter schools.This week, the two houses OK'd a bill taking a first step to raising the pay of judges, effective in 2012.

"Is there a desire? Yes. Have there ever been any informal discussions that I'm aware of? No," said one Western New York lawmaker.

Lawmakers have been privately and publicly grumbling for years that 11 years is too long to go without a pay hike. Leading the charge, especially, are lawmakers from New York City who say the pay has not kept up with the high living costs there. Many lawmakers, though, have outside jobs."

Given the current fiscal crisis, we are not in favor of pay raises at this time, and have no intention of taking it up this year," said Austin Shafran, a spokesman for the Senate Democratic conference.

--Tom Precious

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About Politics Now

Robert J. McCarthy

Robert J. McCarthy

A native of Schenectady, Robert J. McCarthy came to The Buffalo News in 1982 following a six-year stint at the Olean Times Herald. He is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University, and has been covering local, state and national politics since 1992.

Tom Precious

Tom Precious

Tom Precious joined The Buffalo News in 1997 as bureau chief at the state Capitol, where he covers everything from statewide politics and state government fiscal affairs to health care, environmental and municipal government matters. Prior to The News, he worked for news outlets in Albany and Washington, DC.

Jill Terreri

Jill Terreri

Jill Terreri is an Amherst native and has covered politics and government in upstate New York since 2003. She joined The Buffalo News in 2012 and covers City Hall.

@jillterreri |

Jerry Zremski

Jerry Zremski

Jerry Zremski, The Buffalo News Washington bureau chief, has reported from the nation's capital since 1989 after joining The News as a business reporter in 1984. A graduate of Syracuse University, Zremski is a former Nieman fellow in journalism at Harvard University. In 2007, he served as president of the National Press Club.

@JerryZremski |