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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

Problem Isn't the 26% Pay Hikes; It's Who's Getting 'Em

March 30, 1998|George Skelton

SACRAMENTO — Like many people, I was outraged last week when legislators and the governor were awarded 26% pay hikes. But my outrage probably was different than most folks'.

As you'll recall, an independent Citizens Compensation Commission decided to bump the annual salaries of legislators from $78,624 to $99,000, and the governor's pay from $131,000 to $165,000. The raises will show up Dec. 7.

Myself, I believe that the governor and Legislature, in principle, still will be underpaid. Compare: The University of California president gets $253,300. The UC Berkeley and UCLA chancellors are paid $222,700. UCLA's basketball coach collects $475,000.

California's economy is the seventh-largest in the world. This state is the most populous in the nation. I say pay our governor what the U.S. president makes, $200,000. It's a bargain. And pay California legislators, in fairness, the same base salary as members of Congress, $136,700.

Just don't award these legislators that much at this time. Not even $99,000. Make them earn it first.

Look, three weeks ago these characters couldn't pass a simple school bond issue. That should be a gimme putt. Last summer--again--they dilly-dallied and were six weeks late in fulfilling their primary responsibility: passing a state budget.

Sure, they've passed some good bills, but not 26% worth.

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Here are some other outrages:

* Legislators enjoy watching somebody else raise their pay and take the heat. But it's an outrage that this concept of an independent commission, which the lawmakers conceived, has not been extended to another legislative self-interest: redistricting. The majority party always insists on doing its own gerrymandering.

* It's an outrage that legislators receive--tax-free--$833 a week, up to $30,000 a year, in per diem expenses while they're in session. Maybe they're entitled to a Sacramento housing allowance, but nothing like this gravy train. It prompts them to play silly games with weekly schedules to assure that technically they're always in session. Congress has no such per diem bonanza.

* Add this to the above outrage: Legislators get state-leased cars and gasoline credit cards. Members of Congress don't.

* But it's also an outrage that under California's mean-spirited term limits law, legislators elected after 1990 receive no pension. None.

There are more outrages in how legislators operate:

* They waste too much floor time in partisan mischief; also incessant introductions of visitors or motions to adjourn in memory of obscure dead people.

* They're too preoccupied with raising private money for reelection campaigns. Indeed, the main qualification for house leader is not a wide knowledge of public policy, or even legislating skills. It's the ability to squeeze special interests and develop political strategy.

* The legislative pay boosts will cost $2.4 million annually. The outrage is that the state doesn't spend another $12 million and move to partial public financing of campaigns. That would be a sound public investment, but Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed such a bill. So legislators remain more beholden to special interests than to ordinary taxpayers.

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Speaking of the governor:

* It's an outrage that California, unlike other states, doesn't provide its governor with an official residence. Ronald Reagan moved out of the grand old Victorian occupied by the likes of Pat Brown and Earl Warren. Since then, governors have been housed in private homes as charity wards of wealthy backers. All except Jerry Brown, who rented a small apartment near work.

* California's governor doesn't even have an airplane. Ever since Reagan sold The Grizzly--a luxurious but plodding turboprop--governors have traveled the state by commercial jet, special interest loaner or smelly fish-planter. It's an outrage that no governor has had the courage to ask the Legislature for a plane or a house.

Incidentally, I am not outraged that state politicians are getting hefty raises while most state workers haven't gotten any raise in three years. That's ripe fodder for demagoguery, but irrelevant. Besides, civil servants have about the best job security, health benefits and pension system of any workers anywhere.

The commission's pay raise motion was made by a retired labor leader, Jim Green, who explained: "To get good legislators, you have to pay them." That seems logical.

I first heard that argument 32 years ago when lawmakers were making $6,000. Their pay now has risen almost 17-fold, and I'm still waiting for the dramatic improvement. Pay them big time--but only after they've earned it. This raise is an outrage.

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