SACRAMENTO — State Assembly leaders have given pay raises totaling $551,000 to 136 staff members, even as tens of thousands of other state workers have had their salaries cut and California remains awash in red ink.
Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) said she awarded about $350,000 in merit increases averaging 5% to about 80 legislative employees serving members of her party.
Minority leader Michael Villines (R-Clovis) distributed $201,000 in raises averaging 5.5% to 56 staffers working for Republicans, according to Jon Waldie, the Assembly chief administrative officer.
The moves could complicate Bass and Villines' efforts, and those of other legislative leaders and the governor, to persuade voters to pass six budget-related ballot measures in the May 19 special election -- one of which would extend recently enacted tax increases for up to two additional years. The two legislators helped forge an austerity budget signed by the governor in February as state financial authorities were withholding tax refunds and taking other cost-saving measures in the face of a $41-billion deficit.
Bass said the raises would be more than offset by a $15-million reduction in the Assembly's operating budget that included the elimination of 20 jobs.
"I'm trying to streamline my operations," Bass said. "That allows me to give a 5% raise to staff who haven't had a raise in three years."
Villines similarly said the raises would be paid for by "significant spending reductions to our budget."
The increases took effect April 1, affecting a small portion of the Assembly's 1,200 employees.
"We didn't feel in this time period we could do any more. I'd like to do more," Bass said.
The highest raise on the Democratic side was 13% and went to Sylvia Castillo, a senior advisor to Bass. The increase, which came with a promotion, put Castillo's pay at about $124,200.
Seven Republican staffers received raises of more than 5%, including a 19.1% increase for Republican district coordinator Gayle Holman, also as part of a promotion. Her salary was increased to $63,100.
The highest-paid staffer to receive a raise was Democratic Caucus chief consultant Richard Simpson, whose 5% increase boosted his salary to $179,196.
The raises drew outrage from taxpayer advocate Lew Uhler.
"When we have the highest unemployment in California in recent memory, and when people are losing their homes, to add to the salaries of public employees is obscene," said Uhler, president of the National Tax Limitation Committee.
State employee union leaders who are waiting for the Assembly to approve a new contract this week declined to comment on the raises, which come after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called on the Legislature to cut its budget by 10% to match savings being sought from other departments. Some of that savings has been achieved through furloughs that reduced the pay of most state workers.
The contract negotiated with the largest state employee union would impose a 4.6% pay cut in lieu of the furloughs. That pact, with Service Employees International Union, Local 1000, is scheduled to be taken up today by the Assembly Appropriations Committee.
Bass announced in February that she would reduce the Assembly's operating budget by 10% to free up funds for helping the state's unemployed.
"Right now, we all have to tighten our belts and pass a responsible budget that keeps Californians working," Bass said then. She did not specify how the cuts would be made.
No staff raises are planned this year in the state Senate, where a salary freeze was imposed in January, according to Alicia Trost, spokeswoman for Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento).
It is unclear whether legislators will receive pay raises this year.
Charles Murray, chairman of a citizens' panel that sets salaries for state elected officials, said it would not be appropriate to raise lawmakers' pay when the group meets April 29.
"The state doesn't have any money," said Murray, who owns an insurance company.
If pay is frozen for the Legislature, governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and other elected officials, it would be the second year in a row.