Prop 1F: The May 19 Guillotine

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You're angry. You want to punish the politicians. And so... if you're like your fellow Californian who's been polled in recent weeks... you're going to cast a vote for Proposition 1F with glee. Off with their heads, er, pay raises!

Prop 1F was the focus of this morning's final look at the May 19 special election on The California Report.

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This proposal is the only one that seems like a sure bet next Tuesday, and with good reason: it prevents legislators and statewide elected officials from receiving salary increases in years when the state's projected to run in the red.

It's also one of those measures that voters are likely to interpret as more substantive than it really is.

For starters, it's going to come as a surprise to some Californians that the pols don't control their own salaries. Of course, those same folks are ones who've forgotten 1990's Proposition 112, which created a citizens commission that sets those pay levels.

The California Citizens Compensation Commission usually meets once a year, considers a variety of rather bland factors, and makes its decision. In the last 15 years, the commission has raised the salary of legislators seven times; only three of those pay hikes were in the last decade.

But those were three pretty bad years for the state budget -- 2005-06, 2006-07, and 2007-08. The current annual pay for rank and file legislators is $116,028 -- the highest in the nation (#2: Michigan, at $79,650).

For constitutional officers, there were also three pay hikes in the last decade (though only in two of the same years as the Legislature). The governor is the top earner, at $212,179 (Arnold Schwarzenegger, though, accepts no salary).

What Prop 1F is effectively doing, then, is removing a power from the citizens commissioners that's only been used 30% of the time in recent history. That's not necessarily a bad thing to change... but it's a much more muted action than angry voters probably want.

In fact, what voters probably would love is to slash the pay of lawmakers. And here's where Prop 1F will do absolutely nada. While the citizens commission can cut politician pay, it can't cut the pay of sitting lawmakers... only the salary for those who take office in the next election.

For that, you can thank... wait for it... a different voter approved ballot measure, 1972's Proposition 6, which prohibits the reduction of salary during a pol's term in office.

The salary commission is scheduled to meet next week -- the day after the election -- to consider a 10% pay cut. But again, that will only apply to those elected in November 2010. Those in office now can't be forced to take a reduction, no matter how bad the state's finances may be.

(In fairness, it should be noted that eight senators and 15 assemblymembers have either declined the 2007 pay raise or cut their salary beyond the 2006 level, which was $113,098.)

The author of Prop 1F, Sen. Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria), says it's only a first step in government reform.

"I believe [lawmakers] get paid fairly for what they do," he says. "But I don't think that we ought to be any different than anybody else."

You may remember that Prop 1F was one of Maldo's demands in February for being the decisive vote for the budget deficit deal. His original demand -- a measure to block legislators from being paid when they miss the annual budget deadline -- was deemed illegal by legal advisers.

Prop 1F will have an impact, though probably not at the level the angry electorate wants. And while the guillotine metaphor may be a bit extreme, a lot of folks involved in state politics believe that the voters are just itching for a way to punish politicians -- especially the Legislature.

This may scratch that itch for the time being. But if the state's fiscal woes, and political gridlock, continue, the modern-day version of the execution device could come rolling out. And the odds on favorite for the shape it would take: a part-time Legislature.

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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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