Cut Politician Pay. Oh Wait, We Can't?

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[UPDATE 2:33pm - Apparently the governor was watching what happened, as described below. He's just announced three new members of the commission, thus filling all the vacancies. Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear says the governor supports the 10% lawmaker pay cut that failed to be enacted this morning, and says the guv was surprised that one of the standing commissioners voted against it. What do you think the odds are that these three new folks support the pay cut? --JM]

The intersection of populist anger, ballot measure directives, and unexpected legal intricacies could be found this morning at the scheduled meeting of the obscure commission that sets the salaries of elected officials.

When it was all over, those salaries remained just as they are... even as the state's finances keep crumbling down around them.

Today's meeting of the California Citizens Compensation Commission looked to be one where some sort of 'share the pain' action would finally come to pass. After all, state workers are being furloughed and losing pay. Vital state programs have been slashed to help resolve a $40 billion budget deficit. Why not the paychecks of 120 legislators and statewide elected officials?

And now for the problem... or in today's case, a double problem. First up: the citizens commission, created by voters through 1990's Proposition 112, can't reduce the paychecks of sitting lawmakers. That's because of a different ballot measure, 1972's Proposition 6.

So the best that the commissioners could have done today was to slash the pay of officials elected in November 2010.

Undeterred, the four commissioners dutifully debated the merits of a salary freeze versus a cut, and if a cut then by how much. After a reasonably interesting debate, the commission voted to slash paychecks by 10% effective for those elected in 2010.

The vote was 3-1. And then... surprise.

The legal counsel to the commission informed members that the rules state a majority of the commission must agree... not a majority of those present. And because there are three vacancies on the seven member board, all four sitting commmissioners would have to sign off on the decision.

Commmission chair Charles Murray later told reporters he had no idea of that threshold before the meeting. And one of the four commissioners --Bill Feyling -- wanted to cut paychecks by 5%, not 10%. Feyling, the executive director of a carpenters union, wouldn't budge on his position during debate with the others. He also declined to speak to reporters after the meeting.

And so salaries, for now, remain the same: $116,028 for rank and file legislators, $212,179 for the governor, somewhere in between for everyone else.

Chairman Murray told reporters he's received no word from Governor Schwarzenegger as to when the three vacancies might be filled. He also said he's a supporter of Proposition 1F, the May 19 ballot measure that would ostensibly ban any lawmaker raises during budget deficit years.

Speaking of Prop 1F, it's worth considering the commission's record. Over the last decade, the commission has raised the pay of rank and file legislators only three times: in 2005, 2006, and 2007. And yes, it should be pointed out that some of those years were pretty lean for the state budget.

"That was a mistake," said chairman Murray after today's hearing.

Murray, who owns an insurance company, is also pushing for more accurate data about all of the other benefits lawmakers receive, in hopes of making a more informed decision about salaries. As an example, he highlighted during the hearing that legislators get vehicles from the state and access to free gas for those vehicles.

For now, the salary issue is on ice. Barring a new commissioner being appointed who will agree to a 10% cut for future pols, or a change of heart of one sitting commissioner, California's Legislature will continue to be the best paid in America. And Prop 1F, even if it holds to its huge lead in the polls, won't have any impact on that part of the process.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.

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