Politician Pay Stays The Same

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California's statewide elected officials and legislators will not have their salaries or benefits cut any further this year, after the voter-created panel in charge of those paychecks took a pass today at any more reductions.

But the decision didn't come without some quirky moments and some pointed exchanges about whether politics has been at play in the recent push to trim politician paychecks.

The California Citizens Compensation Commission chose this morning at a meeting here in Sacramento to leave those pay rates where they are, and rejected a proposal by one commissioner for an addition 5% cut on top of last year's decision to slash paychecks and benefits by 18%.

The only two comments from the audience were in opposition to any more cuts, with a notable appearance by Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell, who won't be affected because he's termed out of office in a matter of months.

"There is no legitimate reason for additional cuts," he said, "and plenty of reasons for the commission to leave lawmakers' salaries alone."

O'Connell told the commissioners that when all of 2009's cuts are factored in -- salary, perks, benefits -- the cut for legislators has amounted to 26% compared to what they beforehand were eligible to receive. "No one else in the state [government] took that big of a hit," said O'Connell.

And the state schools chief, who before his current position served in the Legislature for 20 years, didn't mince words behind what he -- and others -- think is really behind the push to cut politician pay.

"Further cuts," he said, "would simply be punitive and would smack of retribution for the legislators daring to disagree with this governor, or any future governor, on legitimate matters of both policy and politics."

The backstory to O'Connell's comments, and those of an ex-legislator who also testified, are worth noting. The governor appoints all the members of the commission (created by 1990's Proposition 112), and last year Governor Schwarzenegger filled vacancies on the panel with newcomers who immediately pushed for the big pay cut. Earlier this year -- most notably during the contentious battle over the confirmation of Lt. Governor Abel Maldonado -- several legislators privately, and one publicly, charged that Schwarzenegger and legislative Democrats agreed to a deal that gave ex-legislator Maldo (champion of 2009's Proposition 1F) the state's #2 job in exchange for the Guv leaning on his commission appointees to put away their salary knives. Since then, others have wondered whether the fracas over the 2009 pay cut revealed an until then hidden pressure point on the Legislature's Democratic majority.

One of the citizen commissioners, all of whom were appointed by Schwarzenegger, lashed out at any suggestion they're getting their marching orders from inside the state Capitol.

"I take a little bit offense to this being called a politicization of the facts," said commissioner Ruth Lopez Novodor. She and others said what they're simply doing is looking at the facts of how lawmakers are compensated -- not just salaries but other benefits, including the per diem payments made to members of the Legislature.

And so after voting to keep pay and bennies where they are (salaries of $95,291 for most legislators and more for others), things got... well... somewhat amusing.

Commission chair Charles Murray asked if there was any way the panel could reconvene to take a second look at politician pay and perks beyond June 30, the constitutional deadline for their annual actions. His rationale seemed based still pending review of data about things like cars provided to legislators and the rules regarding per diem payments. But he also mentioned a desire to know what the state's finances look like in the upcoming budget -- which the Legislature, also per the state constitution, was supposed to have ratified yesterday.

And Murray seemed perplexed that the commission shouldn't have the same latitude for tardiness as afforded the Legislature. "They've self extended the deadline for the budget," he said. "I'd like to ask... if we could self extend our deadline."

The commission's legal counsel said there was no such provision, but also no provision that would prevent them from doing so. In the end, though, Murray dropped the request... and the issue of politician pay was settled until 2011.

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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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