California lawmakers rake it in 

At most private companies, an employee’s salary is somewhat dependent on his or her work performance — that is, when you consistently produce results, you should earn more than those who do not.

That brand of logic apparently doesn’t apply to the California Legislature, a body of 120 lawmakers widely regarded for their
dysfunctionality and who are paid far higher than colleagues in any other state. For decades the Legislature has failed to lift the once-flourishing Golden State from financial turmoil.

Despite years of multibillion-dollar budget deficits that existed long before the recession — and even when failing to balance a budget on time during 22 of the last 30 years, with each day of delay costing taxpayers tens of millions of dollars — the annual salaries state lawmakers receive went nowhere but up until last year, when voters at last became fed up.

In May, more than 74 percent of voters approved Proposition 1F, which prohibits the California Citizens Compensation Commission — a state panel that sets elected officials’ pay levels — from increasing lawmaker salaries in any budget deficit year.

Two years earlier, the Legislature’s salary level had been raised from $113,098 to $116,208 — more than double the amount from 1990 — the state commission’s data showed.

However, after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced plans to lay off 5,000 state workers last year to bridge the deficit, the commission ruled it was only fair to reduce salaries and benefits for elected officials by 18 percent.

Even with those cuts, however, the Legislature continues to reel in top pay. Its current annual salary of $95,291 is nearly $16,000 more than what lawmakers earn in New York and $64,295 more than those in Florida, according to a recent survey conducted by the compensation commission.

The pay does not include some $300 lawmakers receive monthly for automobile expenses and the $142 a day they are allowed for expenses each day they are in session, the commission said. Those perks, along with health benefits, were also reduced by 18 percent last year, said Chuck Murray, who chairs the state panel.

On April 22, the commission’s panel will consider reducing the Legislature’s pay by another 10 percent to $85,762, which would still be the nation’s highest, Murray said.

That still won’t appease many voters.

The notion that lawmakers will continue to bring home top pay while California’s schools are failing, its roadways are crumbling and congested and its unemployment rate exceeds the national average is appalling to residents, according to political analysts and watchdog groups.

“It’s frustrating,” said David Williams, vice president of public policy for Citizens Against Government Waste. “This shows the disconnect between the private and public sectors. In the private sector, you don’t get rewarded for failure.”

The reason the pay-for-performance model has not been used for lawmakers is partly the fault of state citizens, said Adam Summers, a policy analyst for the nonprofit Reason Foundation.

“There hasn’t been enough of a financial crisis or, frankly, voter anger,” he said.

For the first time ever, Summers noted, the Legislature’s approval rating plunged to 9 percent in a recent survey conducted by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.

“We continue to have one of the highest-taxed … and worst business climates in the nation,” Summers said.

Some analysts and lawmakers say there are legitimate reasons to offer the Legislature higher pay than its counterparts across the nation.

The state is the most populous in the U.S. and has the highest cost of living, studies show. Also, there is fear that reducing pay would detract qualified candidates from public service and would create a climate in which only the rich could afford seeking office.

“One only needs to look at the governor’s race to see that elected office should not be reserved for just the wealthy who are able and willing to spend millions of dollars,” said state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco.

And not all lawmakers are slacking off, said Patrick Murphy, the chair of the University of San Francisco politics department.

“There are some that are working incredibly hard,” Murphy said.

Truth is, he said, the debate over whether or not lawmakers’ pay is justifiable is mostly symbolic. Cutting salaries for the Legislature and other top officials by 18 percent saved only $2.8 million, a drop in the bucket when considering the state’s $20 billion budget gap, he said.

“No doubt we have huge problems [in the California Legislature],” Murphy said. “I don’t think the pay is it.”

And while it may irk some voters that the lawmakers get travel costs and other miscellaneous expenses paid for, many private companies also reimburse costs for employees that work out of two locations, Murphy added.

Still, the salary discussion is certainly one that can evoke quite a bit of displeasure around the office water cooler, he said. That is not surprising considering how tough it is to get a job these days, let alone a pay raise.

 

Group aims to limit Legislature, get rid of self-service politicians

For more than a year, a reform group in California has not only been proposing a plan to slash salaries in the state Legislature by 50 percent, but also trying to turn the job of lawmaker into a part-time gig.

Though the Citizens for California Reform recently failed to gather enough signatures to qualify its part-time Legislature initiative for the November ballot, President and CEO Gabriella Holt said she will not rest until lawmakers or voters weigh in on the group’s plan.

The proposal seeks to limit the state Legislature — which has been a full-time operation since 1966 — to meeting some 90 days a year, including 30 days in January and up to 60 starting in May.

The reason for part-time is not just about saving taxpayer dollars, but ending gridlock in California’s system of governance, Holt said.

Only seven states in the nation are considered to have an unlimited, full-time Legislature, she added.

Holt said the full-time Legislature has given birth to career politicians whose main goal is to come out on top during election cycles rather than to improve the lives of their constituents.

That opens the door to large-pocketed special interest groups with competing interests that help create the gridlock, Holt added.

It also creates a “political economy” where the positions of lobbyist and political consultant are professional careers and where money poured into radio and television advertising campaigns can determine how laws are passed, she said.

“You have a full-blown economy for 120 people,” Holt said.

A part-time Legislature would attract a different kind of politician that is “about public service, not self-service,” she added.

Critics of the proposal say the state’s economy and population is too large to be run on a part-time basis, and that without a full-time Legislature the governor and lobbyists would enjoy too much power.

As it is now, the governor is practically powerless, Holt said.


Lawmaker perks

Along with salaries, Legislature members receive additional pay benefits:

  • Automobile expenses — Senate members: $287 per month    
  • Automobile expenses — Assembly members: $328 per month    
  • Per diem: $141.86 per qualifying day
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