When State Senator Bill Perkins won a Special Election last week for an empty seat on the New York City Council, he became the first in a wave of State Legislators who are expected to ask voters this year to help them make a similar jump, and in the process gain a hefty Pay Raise.
“Sounds like I’m in the vanguard,” Perkins said the day after winning the Feb. 14th Special Election.
State Lawmakers, both Senators and Assembly members, have not received a raise since 1999. Legislators, who receive a base salary of $79,500, had their hopes for a raise dashed in November when a Commission formed to evaluate Lawmaker salaries failed to agree on a recommendation.
By contrast, the New York City Council last year voted itself a handsome salary increase to $148,500, from $112,500. The increase caused some consternation, in part because the raise was $10,185 greater than the one recommended by an Advisory Panel, an upward departure the Council justified because it also approved a series of Ethics Rules, including a ban on many forms of outside income.
Now close to a half-dozen State Lawmakers, all Democrats, appear to be contemplating a run for the Council this year.
Perkins, however, said the salary increase was not why he ran for the Council. “I’m not running for a higher pay per se,” Perkins, a Democrat, said before adding a caveat: “I’m not ignorant of it, and my wife isn’t ignorant of it either.”
Perkins had previously held the same Council seat, in a District that includes Harlem and part of the Upper West Side, but Term Limits forced him out in 2006. He was Elected to the Senate the same year.
The woman who succeeded him on the Council, Inez Dickens, was Elected last year to the State Assembly, creating a vacancy in Perkins’s old seat. She would have been prevented by Term Limits from running for Re-Election to the Council. State elected officials do not face Term Limits.
Perkins said that he felt he could be more effective on the Council than in the Senate, where he was in the Democratic minority. “It’s not an easy place to be in the minority,” he said. “In a legislative body where majority rules, you’re basically being ruled.”
There are other financial factors as well that may influence Legislators looking to make the jump. Moving to the Council with its higher salary could mean a boost in future Pension payments. The 51 Council Members also receive generous Discretionary funds that they can spend in their Districts.
On the other hand, State Legislative jobs are considered Part-Time and Lawmakers are allowed to hold outside employment. The City Council bans many types of outside income, however, so some State Legislators could potentially see a reduction in income if they were required to give up other jobs. Such outside income, however, has been a frequent cause of Ethical Scandals, helping to bring down Legislative Leaders like House Speaker Sheldon Silver.
Senator Rubén Díaz Sr. of the Bronx said that he was considering a run for the City Council Seat held by Annabel Palma, who is in her Second Term, the maximum currently allowed. “I’m going to give you a few reasons, and one of them is not money,” he said, bringing up the issue of pay without prompting. Diaz, 73, who also previously served on the Council, said that the Discretionary Funds given to Council Members would position him to better help the people of his District. “I’d rather be in a place that I could help my community better, where I could help senior citizens, where I could help Little League, where I could help community groups,” he said. He also said that he recently had back surgery and that at his age, the frequent drives to Albany had become difficult for him. He says that he will make a decision after a State Budget is passed.
Assemblyman Robert Rodriguez has raised $21,860 for a City Campaign, according to a January filing with the City Campaign Finance Board, and he said that he was considering a run for the Seat of the City Council Speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, in East Harlem and the Bronx. Mark-Viverito cannot run again because of Term Limits. Rodriguez also works as a Financial Adviser and might not gain financially by moving to the Council, where he would have to give up his outside job.
Susan Lerner, the Executive Director of Common Cause New York, a Good Government Advocacy group, said that, pay aside, the City Council functions much better than the State Senate or Assembly, thanks to years of Ethical and Legislative Reforms. “What we see is that when you have an appropriate pay level with correct restrictions on outside income and a more robust, functioning legislative process, combined with a well-thought-out and well-executed public campaign finance system, you attract talented candidates and some of them may be people who are sitting in other bodies,” Lerner said. “When you put all these factors together it’s attractive to be a City Council member.”
In Albany, she said, most of the activity happens behind closed doors. “If you are a public spirited community member or a legislator, it is not irrational to think that you can get more done in the City Council,” Lerner said. “You can have a more direct impact.”
In the Bronx, Assemblyman Mark Gjonaj has raised $103,000 to run for the Council Seat that will be vacated by James Vacca, who faces a Term Limit. “This particular move for me is not focused on the salary,” Gjonaj said. He said that he was interested in Local issues like “potholes, streetlights, policing, litter,” and that his Albany experience was also a plus because the City depended so much on decisions made in the State Legislature.
But John Doyle, a City Island resident who is raising money to run against Gjonaj in the Democratic Primary, described the State Capital as an ethical cesspool and said that he intended to make an issue of Gjonaj’s tenure there. “I imagine that Albany will be very much a factor in our race,” Doyle said.
Doyle says that if he is Elected he will refuse to take the new, higher salary that the Council voted itself last year, which he called “obscene.” He said that he would donate the difference between the old and new salaries to charity, or use it to pay his staff. “Leadership is about shared sacrifice,” he said. “If you’re running for office, it’s not about the money so people should agree to personally not take the pay increase.”
Gjonaj said he would use some money from the raise to augment the Discretionary funds he would spend in his District.
The wide salary differential has become the source of running jokes in Albany and New York City, according to Senator Kevin S. Parker of Brooklyn. Mr. Parker, who is not considering a run for the Council, says that his Brooklyn councilman, Jumaane D. Williams, is a friend and that they sometimes laugh over the difference in pay.
“I joke with Jumaane that I’m going to run against him — I need the pay raise,” Mr. Parker said, adding, “It’s not the money, we do it for the service. But like everybody else, you’ve got to pay your bills.”
NYC Wins When Everyone Can Vote! Michael H. Drucker