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Plums Too Pricey for State

March 07, 2003

There must be some mistake, capital reporters thought when Gov. Gray Davis named A. John Shimmon, a retired state tax official, to the state Workers' Compensation Appeals Board at $114,191 a year. After all, Shimmon, 79, was not a termed-out legislator, a known political buddy or a burned-out gubernatorial aide wanting a nice retirement job. That's the sort who commonly win appointment to the handful of state boards and commissions considered the juiciest plums in state government. Who knows, Shimmon might even have real expertise for the job.

Scrambling to the Internet for clues, the scribes discovered that Shimmon's son, David, is a Silicon Valley businessman who contributed $550,000 to Davis' reelection campaign over the last four years. Davis' spokesman said the appointment had nothing to do with the contributions. He even said it with a straight face.

The other sinecures of political chums are the Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board, the Medical Assistance Commission and the Integrated Waste Management Board. They are under special scrutiny this year because of the salaries paid, sometimes for little real work, at a time of state budget crisis. The saving from dropping these posts would be tiny in comparison with the budget shortfall, but the symbolism is important.

To be sure, some of the work needs doing. Were it not for the appeals boards, more cases would be clogging the courts. But there's no reason why a single state appointee couldn't do the job of the medical assistance and waste management boards. In some critical bodies, such as the Air Resources Board, there is a full-time chairman aided by part-time members who are paid a token amount for each meeting.

The waste board is a classic, established in the 1980s after soon-to-retire Gov. George Deukmejian and lawmakers fought over who would get to make the appointments. The governor got four -- the first two of which went to Deukmejian aides -- and the Assembly and Senate leaders one each. The current legislative appointees to the $117,000-a-year jobs are former Assemblyman Carl Washington and Cheryl Peace, wife of former Sen. Steve Peace, now Davis' finance director.

Senate leader John Burton (D-San Francisco) recently appointed Don Novey, just-retired president of the prison guards union, to the unemployment appeals board. Novey says he's surprised how much work there is, but he expects to serve only about one year "because daddies have to take care of other daddies."

Legislators should restructure these bodies along the lines of the state air board, but first they have to get over their own tantalizing hopes that some sugar daddy might someday give them a $117,000-a-year plum.

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