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Citizens Panel Grants Legislators a 37% Raise : Government: Move surprises many state lawmakers, who will become highest-paid in the country at $72,000.


SACRAMENTO — In a decision that surprised many lawmakers, a citizens commission charged with setting the salaries of the state's elected officials Friday granted legislators a 37% pay increase from $52,500 to $72,000 a year, effective in December. The raise will make California legislators the highest-paid in the country.

The commission's decision, made on a 5-2 vote Friday afternoon when few lawmakers were in the Capitol, is final. The additional pay will cost taxpayers $2.5 million annually and comes as the state faces a $5-billion budget shortfall.

Some legislators, sensing the wrath of voters in the June and November elections, quickly pledged to refuse the pay increase, the first granted them since 1990.

The commission, created by voters when they approved Proposition 112 in 1990 as part of a reform package, said it granted the raises after reviewing salaries of other state officials, including judges.

The raises were needed, the commission majority said, to attract qualified candidates who, under term limits, cannot make the Legislature their career and need a good salary to leave their jobs.

The commission granted legislative leaders greater pay increases, in recognition of their additional duties. Senate President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer and Assembly Speaker Willie Brown will receive $86,400 annually. Both are lawyers with private practices.

The Republican leaders, Sen. Ken Maddy (R-Fresno) and Assemblyman Jim Brulte (R-Rancho Cucamonga), will receive $79,200, as will the Democratic floor leaders, Sen. Henry Mello of Watsonville and Assemblyman Thomas M. Hannigan of Benicia, the commission ruled.

Legislators, who receive numerous fringe benefits beyond their salaries, including a $101-a-day tax-free per diem to cover living expenses while they are in session, now will have a total compensation package worth about $100,000 a year.

Lockyer, who is known for putting in unusually long hours, said: "It is an appropriate salary given the levels of responsibility, stress and effort that legislative jobs entail."

But Lockyer acknowledged that there could be a backlash, even though the decision was made by an independent commission. "Campaign opponents always have something they can throw at you," he said.

Radio talk shows already were abuzz Friday afternoon, as were many critics of Sacramento.

"This pushes Paula Jones, Haiti and caning off the air--unless people start proposing caning legislators," said Duane Garrett, a San Francisco radio talk show host and longtime Democratic activist.

"This is a political Pearl Harbor," said Tom McClintock, a conservative Republican and former state legislator running for state controller. "It will ignite a firestorm of taxpayer resentment, anger and action."

Some critics noted that the seven-member commission made its decision on the day that California's new unemployment numbers were released, showing joblessness increasing to 9.6% in April, a jump of 1.3% over March.

"There is never good timing," Assemblyman Phil Isenberg (D-Sacramento) said. "We could be at 0% unemployment and it would still be controversial."

Acting only a month before the June primary, commission Chairman Claude Brinegar said he was aware that there would be criticism.

"We are convinced this is the right thing to do for the state of California," Brinegar, a member of the board of Unocal, told reporters afterward, "and further delay would not produce any worthwhile results.

"With term limits, we feel it is urgent that we attract candidates to run for the Legislature who represent a balanced mix--not just people who are retired or want to be here for the power, but people who are willing to take mid-career interruptions to serve the state."

Several other commissioners said it was time for legislative salary increases because the pay is too low to attract high-quality people to give up other more lucrative careers to run for the Assembly and Senate.

Before reaching its decision, the commission conducted a salary survey of other state and local government positions and private industry posts. Congressmen and U.S. senators are paid $133,600; Gov. Pete Wilson is eligible to receive $120,000 but voluntarily takes only $114,000, and Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan's salary is $123,778, but he accepts only $1.

"Frankly, I thought it was reasonable," said Maddy, the Republican leader in the Senate. "People entering politics are not looking at pensions or longevity. In some fashion, it has to be pay that is reasonable and commensurate with what's going on in government."

In addition to fringe benefits, veteran lawmakers have a very good pension plan, although legislators elected after the 1990 passage of Proposition 140, the term limit measure, do not receive pensions.

All lawmakers also receive life insurance policies, medical and dental care benefits, free telephone and gasoline credit cards for legislative purposes, and can obtain new leased automobiles every few years with the state paying the majority of the cost.

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