Thursday, December 10, 2009

California's Legislators are Suffering from a Pay Cut and Loss of Self-esteem

California’s legislators are in a funk. After years of gerrymandered reelections, salary increases, raising staff salaries, drinking, wenching in Sacramento, giving out legislative largess to favored groups, traveling on tax payer or industry sponsored junkets, incessant fund raising, trying to trick voters into raising taxes and extending term limits, they’ve run into unsolvable budget shortfalls, an angry electorate, mandated 18%pay cuts, and low poll ratings.

Voters currently give the California legislature a favorable rating of 13% - half that of Congress. Even Governor Schwarzenegger polls higher. As Rodney Dangerfield would say, they just can't get any respect.

And now the public servants have to take an 18% pay cut, as well as an 18% cut in living expenses and car allowances. Base pay will be slashed to $95,000 from $116,000.

Why not? Legislators cannot isolate themselves from the state’s problems.
Unemployment is over 12% in California, government workers are taking unpaid furloughs, local governments are laying off public employees, residents are fleeing the state for jobs elsewhere, and the budget shortfalls just keep coming.

The Legislature has tried for years to insulate itself from voter fury over pay increases by delegating the job to the California Citizens Compensation Commission. Thus, they never had to cast those pesky formal votes to increase their pay.

The Council last May surprised almost everyone by voting an actual decrease, a 18% decrease, rather than the pro forma raise or even a freeze. The cuts would go into effect next legislative session. Legislators were aghast.

Members of the Assembly and Senate questioned whether the Commission could do so. They claimed it could only raise salaries, and lacked authority to lower them.

They beseeched the Speaker of the House, Karen Bass, to seek an opinion form Attorney General Jerry Brown, the once and perhaps future Governor of California. Ask a stupid question and you get a stupid answer.

Attorney General Brown ruled that not only did the agency have the power to lower legislative salaries, but also to place them in effect immediately.

The Attorney General undoubtedly understood that he would increase his popularity with the voters by sticking it to the Legislature. He always lived frugally .He didn’t need the money, but sure could use the votes in the primary and general elections next year.

Legislators are not seeking reelection, not seeking election to the other House, or resigning to take positions elesewhere.

One Assemblyman, Mark Ridley-Thomas won a Los Angeles County Supervisor position last year. The new job pays a salary of $178,000. He has celebrated his new post by getting approval for at least $707,000 in office improvements, funded by taxpayers, when the County is undergoing a budget shortfall. That’s the type of judgment that got the Legislature in difficulty.

He also has a $1 million discretionary fund to play with.

A Republican Senator resigned from the Senate last year to become a supervisor on the Riverside County Board of Supervisors, at a substantial salary increase and no term limits.

The worse may be yet to come. A referendum is circulating that will turn the Legislature into a part time legislature, similar to Texas, and cut the pay in half.

If it qualifies for the ballot, it might well pass.

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