The New York City Council is supposed to be a part-time legislative body. Members are required to meet just twice a month, excluding July and August, and sessions rarely last more than 90 minutes. Yet the range of remarkable—or more accurately, remarkably stupid—ideas that emerge from the New York City Council continues to astound.
Some are truly dangerous, like decriminalizing quality-of-life crimes and forcing the NYPD to abandon its Broken Windows strategy. Others are merely sloppy, such as the recent bill intended to ban micro-beads—the microscopic, gritty abrasion particles used to exfoliate skin and polish teeth. Instead, the City Council bill was written in such a way as to ban all sorts of polymers—and thus most cosmetics and makeup.
One recent City Council initiative—obviously intended to bolster the progressive street cred of its sponsor—tried to establish a city-financed pension for everyone who lacks one. The cost? It was never specified, but it could easily have reached tens of billions. Another bill would either prohibit or allow hoverboards—different news outlets reported conflicting impacts. And our least-favorite dumb-and-dumber suggestion: allowing bicycles to run red lights.
Paying City Council members far more than the people they represent in the invented hope that they will be less corrupt is not the way to go.
Now a half-dozen Council members are proposing a bill that deserves serious attention due to the underlying problem: the need to root out corruption in public office. These members want to give Council members a 71 percent pay raise—to $192,500 from the current base of $112,500. (Most City Council members receive additional payments known as “lulus”—payments in lieu of expenses—ranging from $5,000 to $25,000 annually. The lulus are to compensate members for chairing one committee meeting a month.) In return, the sponsors argue, members would be banned from earning outside income.
The theory is that the higher salary would attract higher-quality people, with less incentive to embezzle, take bribes, or otherwise cheat the people. More than 30 statewide elected officials and legislators have left office because of criminal or ethical problems since 2000. More than 60 have been prosecuted statewide.
Sadly, the temptation for abuse and self-dealing is not limited by what elected officials earn. City Council members also control a slush fund—sorry, discretionary funding—that ranges from $685,000 to $760,000 annually. And campaign war chests have long served as the (illegal) personal piggy bank for greedy candidates.
What evidence do we have that raising a crookedly inclined politician’s pay by a certain percentage will thwart any larcenous tendencies? Would a corrupt politician be less likely to self-deal if he earned 20 percent more? Fifty percent? One hundred percent?
Members of the U.S. Congress earn $174,000 and there are strict limitations on how—and how much—outside income is allowed. A New York City police officer earns $69,005 after five years on the job—and a cop’s job is far more essential and dangerous than a City Council member’s. Public school teachers earn between $45,530 and $74,796—and their importance and impact exceeds a Council member’s by a New York mile.
New York City has 51 City Council members. Some of them work hard, diligently and thoughtfully. But what we see emerging from the City Council chamber does not lead us to believe that paying members more will result in better legislation or more ethical people.
We need to address the astounding level of corruption throughout New York government. But paying City Council members far more than the people they represent—where New Yorkers have a median household income of $50,711—in the invented hope that they will be less corrupt is not the way to go. Service on the City Council should be just that: service. If the pay is too low to deter a person from succumbing to corruption, that is not a person we want serving us. At the end of the day, does anyone believe that someone like former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, convicted of receiving nearly $4 million in illicit payments, would have behaved differently had his salary been 71 percent higher? We don’t either.