Legislators Caught In Partisanship Grinder

While the details change from place to place, I suspect that the general idea reflects the harsh reality of local legislators everywhere.  In Nassau Count, New York, the government is run by an executive and a county legislature, created in 1996 to replace the unconstitutional Board of Supervisors that disenfranchised anyone who wasn’t tithing the Republican Party.

Nassau County, you see, was the last fully functioning party machine in New York, perhaps the country.  The Republican’s ran this patronage mill with an iron fist.  When they were forced to change the structure of county government, a provision was included for legislators’ salaries, that any raise would not go into effect until after the next election of a new legislature, thus giving the voters the opportunity to vote the salary-raising scoundrels out of office if they weren’t thrilled with their avarice.

In 1996, they set the salary of a legislator at $39,500, the theory being that these were part-time jobs and this was enough.  Of course, the Republican machine couldn’t have cared less, since they all held multiple high-paying county jobs, as did their wives, children, cousins, etc.  It was good old honest graft, in the Plunkitt sense.

Then one day, when the cash flow began to ebb, a funny thing happened.  The machine ground to a halt, and a Democrat named Suozzi took over.  On his coattails road a majority of the legislature and a variety of other offices.  After two elections, the Dems had the county sown up.  The disgraced Republican leader, the one who lost their last machine, was punished by being forced into the position of New York State Republican leader.  In New York, that’s purgatory.

But being a legislator is a lousy job today.  Not only do you have to raise money to run again every couple of years, but it’s a full time endeavor, including nights and weekends.  Begging for a few hundred thou to run for an office that pays $39,500 is ugly.  And you don’t really have any power anyway.

So, according to this Newsday story, the Legislators have had enough of waiting for a decent party invitation to get a good meal.  They want a raise.  But in a county where partisan politics are as bitter as Nassau, nothing gets done without somebody trying to use it to nail someone else to the wall.

Seeking to prevent raises from being used against incumbents, Minority Leader Peter Schmitt (R-Massapequa), in the past has demanded that all 10 Democrats vote for a pay hike before his nine Republicans will support it.

Unlike the Republicans, however, trying to keep the Democrats in line is like herding cats.  The problem now is that pesky reform condition in the county charter that prevents a pay raise from taking effect until after the next election.  This makes the pay raise a political football, and ties these folks in knots of fear about how their vote will be used against them. 

Former Presiding Officer Judy Jacobs (D-Woodbury), who supports a pay raise, said changing the charter simply gives lawmakers the mechanism for increasing their salaries sometime in the future; it doesn’t actually raise their salaries.

Legis. David Denenberg (D-Merrick) said he hadn’t seen the proposal and was hesitant to comment on it. “I’m not really sure how they’re trying to do it,” said Denenberg, who has opposed past pay hike proposals. “I would be against a back-door increase.”

Notice how carefully they frame their positions, ensuring plausible deniability (at the risk of abject silliness)?  But then comes ambition to screw up the plan.

But Legis. David Mejias (D-Farmingdale), another past opponent of pay hikes who is widely predicted to challenge State Sen. Kemp Hannon (R-Garden City) this fall, said he won’t vote for a charter change.

“It’s inappropriate for a politician to change the rules to give themselves a raise at a time when people can’t afford to pay their property taxes or health care costs.” Mejias said.

David Mejias has great ambition.  His plan isn’t to get a pay raise as legislator, but to get a new job with better pay (not to mention member money) in the State Senate. 

Nassau County has some of the highest property taxes in the nation, but not because of the county portion.  The absurdly high school taxes (consider this, the Oyster Bay School District rakes in $28,000 per student in taxes!) can make billionaires cry.  But that doesn’t mean that a climber like Mejias won’t capitalize on capital to prove his tax-busting bona fides.  Of course, tripling the salaries of 19 legislators to pay them for their full-time job won’t make a dent in the budget, though the message is always bad when times are tough.

Frankly, the message might be better if they did their job, got paid for it, and sent a message that they aren’t living in a political and economic fairyland.  But that’s not politics today, not even on this little local level with these little local politicos.