SACRAMENTO — The top aide to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger could earn a state salary exceeding $200,000 a year as part of a round of raises the governor is preparing to award his senior deputies.
The raises could lift some salaries among the 185 people working in the governor's office to $169,500 in certain cases, with the governor's chief of staff, Susan P. Kennedy, eligible for up to $225,000.
Kennedy now collects a state salary of $143,000, and the most senior aides beneath her earn about $134,000.
The pay hikes were set in motion last year, when the governor signed a bill with bipartisan support authorizing higher salaries for agency secretaries and department heads.
A spokesman for the governor's office said no decision has been made as to the size of the increases or how much Kennedy might receive. Nor has the governor identified how many will get raises, said Aaron McLear, the governor's press secretary.
Pay hikes, McLear said, are needed "to retain the best and brightest in these key positions."
Some fiscal conservatives said the governor should forgo salary increases at a time when nonpartisan analysts are predicting a budget shortfall of $726 million.
"It almost appears that the administration is rewarding people when there is every reason to tighten the belt," said Lew Uhler, president of the National Tax Limitation Committee, based in Sacramento. "It sends absolutely the wrong message to the overburdened taxpayers of California."
As a result of the new law, 49 people got raises effective Sunday, some of which exceed 20%.
By law, the governor is entitled to set his own staff salaries at the same level as those running the state bureaucracy. So when the pay of department and agency heads went up, the governor was permitted to give his staff raises.
As chief of staff, Kennedy is entitled to make as much as the highest-paid agency secretary, in this case prisons chief James Tilton, who is paid $225,000 a year.
Other Schwarzenegger aides are permitted to get as much as the highest-paid department director, Ruben Grijalva, director of the Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention, whose salary was raised Sunday to $169,500.
McLear said he did not know when the pay hikes would take effect. No new money will be set aside to boost salaries, he said. Rather, the governor's office will finance the raises by not filling some jobs or by hiring people at more junior positions at lower pay, McLear said.
Schwarzenegger's proposed 2007-08 budget for total office expenses is about $19.7 million.
Apart from salary, state employees working in the governor's office receive retirement benefits amounting to 2% of their final salary for every year of service.
The average retired state employee collects $2,371 a month in retirement benefits, according to the California Public Employees' Retirement System.
State salaries may be lower than comparable positions in the private sector or even local government agencies, but Schwarzenegger's top aides can parlay their experience into higher-paying lobbying jobs after leaving public service.
Jim Brulte, a former state senator who now works for the political consulting firm California Strategies, said: "Assuming you did well and you leave an administration during the administration, you're generally considered a valuable commodity because of your understanding of the decision-making process.
"People can hire lobbyists to lobby and hire campaign people to campaign, but nobody knows the decision-making process other than people who were there."
That said, Brulte believes that the governor's office needs to increase pay. Some people going to state government from local agencies are taking substantial pay cuts.
Schwarzenegger recently hired David Long as his education secretary at an annual salary of $175,000.
At his last job, superintendent of schools in Riverside County, Long earned $240,000.
In the past, Schwarzenegger has supplemented staff salaries with campaign funds.
Kennedy, for example, who joined the governor's office in December 2005, earned $323,500 in campaign and taxpayer money in her first year.
But Schwarzenegger no longer uses campaign funds to boost salaries, McLear said.
That's a welcome change, said Jean Ross, executive director of the California Budget Project.
"It's in the state's interests to hire the best possible staff they can, and in order to do that, obviously the state needs a compensation package that's competitive with the job market," said Ross, whose organization examines how the state budget affects low- and middle-income Californians.
"It's inappropriate for people to draw a salary from campaign funds at the same time as they're drawing a salary from the state of California," she added.