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GOP Assailed Over Assembly Staff Pay Raises

Legislature: Taxpayer advocates, Democrats criticize the retroactive increases. Republican leaders say not enough credit is given to Speaker Curt Pringle for instituting reforms.

June 11, 1996|PAUL JACOBS and VIRGINIA ELLIS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SACRAMENTO — The leaders of two prominent taxpayers groups criticized Assembly Republicans on Monday for giving substantial raises to their legislative staffs at a time when most California workers are getting only minimal increases.

Ted Costa, chief executive officer of People's Advocate Inc., and Joel Fox, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., said they were disappointed that GOP leaders had failed to break with practices established under Democratic Speaker Willie Brown.

Costa said he was particularly concerned that many of the raises had been given retroactively in apparent violation of the state Constitution and that he is considering a taxpayer lawsuit challenging the increases.

Both men were reacting to a Times story Monday that noted that hundreds of GOP staffers had received raises averaging in excess of 30% since November 1994, when the Republicans won a majority in the Assembly. Many received multiple increases and more than 100 were made retroactive, including some that resulted in back pay of thousands of dollars for some individuals.

"[Republicans] are trying to make it appear that they are changing policies when they don't really intend to change anything," Costa said. "The only thing they want to do is rule the roost, so I don't see any relief in sight for the taxpayer."

Fox said it was poor timing to give big raises "coming out of recessionary times when the people who are paying the bills aren't seeing those kinds of raises."

The Times' findings, however, drew criticism from the Republican leadership, which complained that there was not enough credit given to the current speaker, Curt Pringle of Garden Grove, for reforms he has instituted.

Shortly after Pringle became speaker in January, Republican leaders ordered a cut in the pay of the highest-paid staff and set a new ceiling for salaries at $100,000, Pringle spokesman Gary Foster said. Only one of the 10 employees who had made salaries in excess of the ceiling worked for a Republican, Foster said.

All but one of the Assembly salaries has been brought down to the $100,000 cap imposed in February.

Even now, Foster said, the highest-paid Democratic staff members continue to make as much or more than their Republican counterparts, although their party no longer controls the Assembly.

"I wish the same amount of attention was paid to the way Curt has taken on a lot of the past practices instead of highlighting raises that some staff people got," Foster said.

The disclosure of the pay increases, which cost $2.7 million a year, was the result of a detailed computer analysis of state payroll data and other documents.

Those records also show that at least 50 current legislative staff members are getting salaries that exceed the ranges established by the Assembly Rules Committee, which oversees the employment practices of the lower house. Some make more than $1,000 a month over the limit.

Of those earning more than the guidelines allow, 30 work for Republican members, the documents show. They include two political consultants who hold Assembly jobs, the son-in-law of an Assembly member and the wife of a former assemblyman and state senator who is now serving a term in federal prison.

The 20 Democrats earning salaries above the guidelines include several political consultants and Brown's former chief of staff.

Foster said that in recent years the Assembly has considered the pay scales outdated and treated them more as goals than hard-and-fast rules. He said they are now undergoing revisions so "they are more in line with the public and private sector."

Reaction from present and former Assembly members to the disclosure of Republican pay increases and retroactive payments was mixed.

Democratic Assembly Leader Richard Katz (D-Sylmar) predicted that voters would hold Republican leaders "accountable for what they have done." He rejected the argument that Democrats have done the same thing in the past, saying: "I think people who live in glass houses ought to be careful where they are throwing stones."

But Assemblyman John Burton (D-San Francisco) said the Republicans should not be criticized. "It is only natural to expect their people to get raises once they have responsibility," he said.

Two former speakers, who were ousted by the current leadership, disagreed. Former Speaker Doris Allen (R-Cypress) focused her criticism on the retroactive payments, especially those going back more than eight months. "It seems like a gift of public funds to go back so far," she said. "I didn't have any of that come across my desk and had it come across, I wouldn't have approved it."

Assemblyman Brain Setencich (R-Fresno), like Allen, was elected speaker last year with the backing of Democrats and was replaced in January by Pringle. He said he did approve some retroactive increases, but tried to urge moderation, to no avail.

Setencich said: "Don't let anybody pull the wool over your eyes about what happened when [Republicans] got power. They were drunk with it."

Times staff writer Max Vanzi contributed to this story.

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