The Coronavirus and a “New” State Legislative Process

It’s impossible to quarrel with the New York State Senate and Assembly amending their rules last month to allow remote, electronic attendance and voting at legislative sessions during the current murderous pandemic. In-person sessions certainly would have qualified in size and character as the kinds of large gatherings that have Read more…

PCBs, Lyme Disease and Honeybees

The world’s not a happy place these days but there is a temptation to think that at least some of what’s happening nationally — e.g. who gets what big job in Washington — won’t much impact your daily life. Wrong, for sure, when it comes to the air you breathe and the water you drink.

Look no further than Newburgh, New York last month.

In 2016 it was discovered that Washington Lake, a major source of water for City of Newburgh residents, was contaminated with PFOAs from nearby Stewart Air National Guard Base. These chemicals, used as fire retardants, have been linked to the proliferation of kidney cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid disease, high cholesterol and ulcerative colitis, among other diseases. Then just a few weeks ago, the City was again threatened by the use of a chemical foam used at the airport.

Exactly two days after the latest news of contamination, The New York Times reported that the EPA wants to downplay the risk of this class of chemical in drinking water under pressure from the Defense Department. Prior to the EPA’s revision, the agency had suggested those responsible for proliferation would need to take immediate action. But proposed revisions would let the agency drag its feet on cleanup or avoid remediation.

These events and others like them across the state and country make the Benjamin Center’s latest discussion brief, Hudson River PCBs: What the GE Clean-Up Brings to Life, by Simon Litten, more than a powerful history lesson.

Litten shows that the extraordinarily costly, time-consuming, and ultimately equivocal cleanup of PCBs from the Hudson River is at least in part the result of even well-meaning researchers fumbling for decades about how to study the impact of toxins already released into the environment. Litten says “prevention would be far better, and far cheaper than cleanup.” Put differently, the broadly applicable general lesson is that pretending a problem doesn’t exist (more…)

The Mess of New York Lawmaker Pay

This post originally ran as an opinion column in the Gotham Gazette and has been re-posted here with the publisher’s permission.

New Yorkers have been upset by state legislators’ compensation for more than 200 years. At the 1821 constitutional convention, Ezekiel Bacon, a former member of the Assembly and of Congress, called the pay issue “…a hobby horse of ambitious demagogues and peddling politicians, that caused the great questions that affected the vital interest of the state too often to be overlooked.” The current debate is nothing new. We’ve never liked how much legislators are paid. We’ve never liked how the matter is decided.

At first the decision was left to the Legislature and the Governor (who was then far less powerful than today). Public distress at the members’ generosity to themselves led to the specification of a $3 per diem rate ($56.28 in today’s money) in the state constitution by the convention of 1821. This made the pay alterable only by constitutional amendment, which required public ratification after passage in two successive legislative sessions or adoption by a following convention. The Governor, with no role in the amending process, was denied formal involvement. The people—always skeptical, sometimes hostile—were left with a decisive voice.

No constitutional convention held after 1821 during the period that legislative pay was still constitutionally specified—in 1846, 1867, 1894, 1915, and 1938—succeeded in increasing it. Some delegates, like the publisher Horace Greeley in 1867, thought public service was sufficiently rewarded by a legislator’s “consciousness of honorable usefulness” and the “gratitude’ of other citizens. If provided at all, those who held this view believed, pay for legislators should be sufficient only to cover expenses. At later conventions most delegates, many of whom had been or were senators or Assembly members, voiced support for better compensation for legislators, but failed to act on the matter because of the  expense, or because of fear that public hostility to a pay increase would lead to overall defeat of their work at the polls. Indeed, the constitution proposed in 1915, the only one offered by a convention that included a pay increase for legislators, was rejected by the public at referendum.

In the hundred years between 1846 and the end of World War II, voters did approve two amendments offered by the Legislature providing for members’ pay increases. The first of these, passed in 1874 and supported by both Democratic Governor John T. Hoffman and Republican Governor John Adams Dix, increased legislators’ annual compensation to $1,500 ($33,030 in current dollars) from the maximum of $3 day for 100 days ($8,318 in current dollars) set by the 1846 convention. This was the first specification of legislative pay as an annual salary, not as a per diem for what was then still universally regarded as part-time work. In 1911 voters defeated an amendment calling for a salary increase to $2,500. This increase ($35,966 in current dollars) was finally passed in 1927 as part of a broad package of reforms championed by Democratic Governor Alfred E. Smith.

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