California lawmakers' salaries are highest in nation

Salaries for California lawmakers remain the nation's highest despite years of budget crisis and a belt-tightening backlash that sparked legislative pay cuts three years ago.

For voters eager to target lawmakers as scapegoats for the state's massive problems, California's top ranking is sure to fuel debate this week over whether to cut deeper into legislative paychecks.

State-by-state pay statistics will be weighed Friday by the state's California Citizens Compensation Commission, a seven-member panel appointed by the governor to set pay for legislators and other statewide elected officials.

Salaries don't tell the whole story. California's $95,291- per-year legislative pay does not reflect other cuts made to compensation in the past three years, including stripping lawmakers of cars and slashing their payments for Sacramento living expenses from $173 to $142 a day.

California clearly leads the nation in legislative base pay, followed by Pennsylvania, $82,026, and New York, $79,500.

The two East Coast states arguably rank highest in total compensation, however, because legislators there can qualify for pension and retirement medical benefits while California's lawmakers cannot.

In addition, virtually every New York state senator and a majority of its Assembly members receive extra pay for serving in caucus or committee leadership posts. Most of the stipends range from $9,000 to $12,500, but the highest is $34,000, records show.

Tom Dalzell, chairman of California's pay commission, said he has not decided what action, if any, should be taken by the panel. Friday's meeting will be limited to discussion, which could lead to written motions to be acted upon in May, he said.

Dalzell said that a $95,291 legislative salary "is still a fair amount of money" but that he is aware pay levels can affect candidates' willingness to seek office.

"I think you certainly don't want to turn politics into just a rich man's sport," he said.

By comparison, salaries of some county executives, auditors and district attorneys are more than double that of state legislators, a study by the pay commission found.

Commissioner Chuck Murray said he is leaning against a legislative pay cut but would not support raising pay – "absolutely not" – while the state budget is billions in the red and leaders are pushing for a tax increase "just to break even."

"As I recall, they're still some of the highest-paid legislators in the country," Murray said.

Others are jumping into the fray.

Enough is enough, said Steve Maviglio, a Democratic Party strategist and former spokesman for Assembly speakers Fabian Núñez and Karen Bass.

"You can't continue tying legislators to a whipping post and beating them," Maviglio said. "At the end of the day, they have to look at their family and say, 'Is this worth it?' "

Nearly 350 legislative aides or administrators make higher salaries than elected legislators, with the highest-paid receiving more than $190,000 in the Assembly and more than $205,000 in the Senate, records show.

Maviglio said the danger in cutting lawmakers' pay any more deeply is that California could end up with fewer candidates and a Legislature "not nearly as diverse as the citizens it represents."

But Ted Costa of People's Advocate, which is pushing an initiative drive to convert the Legislature to part time, said the paychecks of California legislators have fared well in past years, despite the nearly $21,000 cut in December 2009.

Before falling to the current $95,291, pay for Assembly and Senate members had climbed from $99,000 to $116,208 over a three-year period ending in December 2007.

"They haven't been cut very much," Costa said.

Assemblywoman Shannon Grove, a leader in the drive for a part-time Legislature, said lawmakers don't typically work 40 hours a week and don't deserve full-time pay.

"For the job I think that the legislative body does in this building, it does not merit $95,000 a year," said Grove, R-Bakersfield.

Grove contends that the Assembly should worker harder but for fewer days. Her ballot proposal would cut the legislative session to three months and slash salaries to $18,000 per year.

Democratic and Republican legislative leaders declined to comment on lawmakers' pay, noting that the salary-setting commission is an independent decision-making body.

Most of the nation's biggest states are served by full-time or nearly full-time legislatures – seven of the 10 most populous states. Overall, however, 40 of the 50 states have part-time lawmakers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Assemblyman Anthony Portantino is taking aim at a legislative perk, not pay. His Assembly Bill 2068 would eliminate the state's practice of charging retired lawmakers only $12 for a legislative license plate, with no renewal fee. Other motorists typically pay about $50 for various specialized license plates, with a renewal fee of up to $40.

Larry Gerston, a political science professor at San Jose State University, said it is normal for voters to demand sacrifice from lawmakers in times of economic distress. But California has one of the world's largest economies and "I truly believe you need people to be compensated for what they do," he said.

"We get to a point where it's not a matter of sacrifice as much as looking at these people as sacrificial lambs," Gerston said.


Recent actions of the compensation commission:

May 2009: Cut legislative salaries from $116,208 to $95,291. (Voters ended pensions for new lawmakers in 1990.)

June 2009: Reduced by 18 percent the state's contributions for legislative per diem, auto allowance, and health and other insurance benefits.

June 2010: Opted not to raise or cut legislators' pay. Specified that elected officials can receive any future increase in the state's share of health insurance costs.

April 2011: Eliminated the state's practice of subsidizing, maintaining and supplying gas for a vehicle for each lawmaker. Legislators now are paid mileage to drive their personal vehicles.

Source: Compensation Commission

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