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Obscure State Panelists Get $20,000 Raise


SACRAMENTO — Plying the backwaters of the state bureaucracy, a tiny agency called the California Medical Assistance Commission scarcely creates a ripple.

No controversies. No breathless 10-point programs. No publicity.

But salaries for the commissioners, who meet twice a month for two or three hours to award Medi-Cal contracts, are about to jump to $99,000 a year--more than $20,000 above what they make now.

The seven members, including four retired legislators, are political appointees who hold one of the plum jobs in state government.

An obscure 1980s law enacted by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. requires that the salaries of medical assistance commissioners be identical to those of California's lawmakers--who just got a raise from $78,624 annually to $99,000.

The state Citizens Compensation Commission last week approved 26% to 34% pay raises for the governor, state legislators and other top elected officials.

The status of the Medical Assistance Commission is unique. It is the only group of appointed state commissioners to get a raise as a result of the salary board's decision--a link created "to take care of people," said a former legislator who asked not to be named.

"I don't think anybody ever contemplated $99,000," he said.

By law, the salaries of those who serve on all other paying state boards and commissions cannot exceed the percentage rate increase given to state employees. State workers last received a 3% raise in 1995. Currently, contract negotiations between Gov. Pete Wilson and several unions are stalled.

Richard Katz, a former Democratic assemblyman from the San Fernando Valley who was forced out last year by term limits and is now a member of the Medical Assistance Commission, praised his panel's work. He called the group an ally of the taxpayers that has saved $1 billion over the years by negotiating competitive health care contracts.

But Katz, who is running for the state Senate, was evasive when asked whether he believed members' salaries were adequate.

"The question is: Is it worth spending some money to save $1 billion? That is a judgment of the people to make," he said.

Katz said that in addition to attending commission meetings, members also "spend a fair amount of time reviewing all the contracts we vote on. We raise a lot of questions about them sometimes" and members visit hospitals.

Drew Mendelson of the 135,000-member California State Employees Assn. said his members favor reasonable pay raises for those who serve on state boards and commissions. But he said he was disturbed that the raises for the medical assistance commissioners were not based on merit.

"In this case, it is not what you know or what you do, but who you know," Mendelson said. "This [medical commission] is exactly the kind of system we are fighting against."

Conservative Assemblyman Tom McClintock (R-Northridge), the Legislature's No. 1 foe of boards and commissions, denounced the medical commission's impending raise.

"The salaries are out of line," McClintock said. "They shouldn't be paid anything. The commission shouldn't exist.

"It is one of the posh government sinecures that are awarded to the political nobility by the grateful sovereign for services rendered," McClintock said.

Historically, the Medical Assistance Commission has been one of the juiciest patronage plums in California government. It has been a soft-landing cushion for former lawmakers and other well-connected appointees of the governor and leaders of the Assembly and Senate.

Besides Katz, current members are:

* Daniel Boatwright, a retired Democratic state senator from Concord, forced out in 1997 by term limits.

* Clair W. Burgener of San Diego, a former Republican congressman, state legislator, University of California regent and state Personnel Board member and a longtime ally of Wilson.

* Kamala D. Harris of Oakland, an attorney and onetime girlfriend of former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown Jr., who appointed her.

* Tricia Hunter of San Diego, a registered nurse and former GOP Assembly member.

* Milton G. Gordon, a Democrat and real estate commissioner in the administration of Gov. Edmund G. "Pat" Brown in the 1960s.

* Gladden V. Elliott of San Diego, a Republican, retired radiologist and former chairman of the California Medical Assn. and an early Wilson political supporter.

Wilson appointed Elliott, Burgener and Hunter. Boatwright and Gordon were appointees of the Senate Rules Committee; Katz was appointed by former Assembly Speaker Cruz Bustamante (D-Fresno).

The commission's twice-monthly meetings, often held in a Capitol hearing room, convene in midmorning and usually conclude at the lunch hour.

Intended as a brake on escalating Medi-Cal health care costs for the needy, the commission is charged with approving rate contracts negotiated with hospitals and HMOs. Last year, the contracts totaled $2 billion, agency officials said.

As a result of competitive rate negotiations, taxpayers have saved about $1 billion, said Byron Chell, the commission's executive director, who does not sit on the board. "We're unique in the country. Many states pay twice as much as we do," he said.

As for last week's pay raises, which have outraged many state workers, McClintock said there is talk in the Capitol of introducing an election-year bill that would repeal the latest legislative pay raises and roll back lawmakers' salaries to the level of 1966, when they received $16,000 a year.

The new salaries approved by the Compensation Commission are expected to cost taxpayers $14.1 million next year, if all the officials accept them. That would compare with about $11.2 million this year, or an increase of about $3 million.

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