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SANDY BANKS

2 California legislators who just said no

They refused to cave in to pressure from their state Senate colleagues -- no voluntary 5% pay cuts for them.

July 01, 2009|SANDY BANKS

By the time you read this, either the ink will be drying on California's last-ditch budget deal or the state will be poised to issue IOUs.

Either way, Tuesday was a rubber-meets-the-road moment in a process that has tested the fortitude of our state's residents and the character of our elected officials.

Voters conveyed their frustration loud and clear in May, rejecting ballot measures that would have pushed our problems into the future and let legislators off the hook.

The state board that sets legislative compensation took the hint and moved quickly to order an 18% pay cut for any lawmaker elected after this year. Then, on Tuesday, the same board cut their benefits package -- health benefits, car allowance and tax-free living-expense payments -- by 18% as well. Still, neither of those cuts kicks in right away. The reduced benefits don't take effect until December. And the salary reduction doesn't even apply to this crop of lawmakers.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, July 02, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Sandy Banks: A column on legislative pay cuts in Wednesday's Section A said Cal State Sacramento professor Barbara O'Connor voted in favor of furloughs for university professors. O'Connor has not yet voted, but intends to vote for the pay cut after ballots go out next week.

Given that, I think state Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) deserves credit for his campaign to persuade his Senate colleagues to prick themselves now and bleed a little. All but two of 40 state senators heeded his request and voluntarily reduced their salaries by 5%, beginning today. Some gave up even more, and many did so without his prodding.

They must feel like no good deed goes unpunished. The benefit cuts, on top of their salary givebacks, mean a double hit -- equivalent to about $13,000 annually -- on their wallets.

Can you hear the cheering outside of Sacramento?

::

The $235,000 in Senate pay cuts that Steinberg wanted is just a tiny piece of the puzzle of cuts and tax hikes needed to close the state's $24-billion budget gap. Most senators went along, mindful of the gesture's symbolic meaning to state workers, whose salaries have been cut by more than 9% through unpaid furloughs.

Republican Roy Ashburn from Bakersfield refused, telling Times reporter Patrick McGreevy that he suspects the savings will go back into the Senate budget -- controlled by Democrats -- rather than the state's general fund.

And Inglewood Democrat Roderick Wright opted out, denouncing the giveback as an empty gesture.

Wright prides himself on being an iconoclast. What he does with his salary is not the public's concern, he said: "I could have easily said, 'Put me down; I'll be number 39.' But I've never been one who goes along to get along."

I wondered if that would play as courage or arrogance to voters. I called Cal State Sacramento professor Barbara O'Connor, who runs the university's Institute for the Study of Politics and Media, for her take.

She thinks it's "stupid" not to line up behind the voluntary cut. "Legislators live in a bubble," she said. "The reality is that everybody else is taking hits."

In fact, up and down California, legions of exempt government workers have volunteered or agreed to take salary cuts to help get us through this crisis.

Los Angeles County Superior Court judges offered to forgo part of their salaries, even though they are protected by the state Constitution from pay cuts during their term on the bench. The cuts won't make much of a dent in the court's $90-million shortfall, but it will allow them to look furloughed clerks and bailiffs in the eye with dignity.

In both of the state's university systems, tenured professors are being asked to take salary hits, to minimize cuts to student services and help protect the jobs of part-time faculty members.

"It's not about whether we deserve it," said O'Connor, who voted for the plan to take two furlough days each month. "I see my students suffering. Their Cal Grants are being cut, they can't get part-time jobs, they're paying more tuition each year and can't get the classes they want.

"It's not fair for me to get a 10.7% salary cut," she said. "But . . . it's a sharing of the pain. You do it for the greater good."

Wright told me he's not averse to sharing pain. "If someone said would I take a 5% pay cut so somebody else could keep their job, I would probably do it, for that person. But I'm not going to do it as a political statement.

"I have a limited time to stay in office. And I don't get a pension," he said.

::

Wright told me Tuesday his decision not to cut his own pay looks pretty smart right now, since news of the benefit cut came down.

"I just sat in a room with 15 [Senate] members who were like 'Why did we do this to ourselves? Now we've got two pay cuts, not one.' There are a whole lot of people with buyers' remorse."

Still, I agree with O'Connor that it would have been good for our morale to see the Senate -- and Assembly -- step forward in a unified stance of voluntary sacrifice.

They are the highest paid state legislators in the country, and their foot-dragging on the budget has given a black eye to the Golden State. "They're not just politicians. They're Californians too," O'Connor said. "Anything they can do collectively to show that they are sensitive to real people's pain sends a good message."

It might even ease the pain of tax hikes and the burn of service cuts if we could believe that our legislators were suffering in the trenches with us.

But maybe that belief would just set us up for a fall again.

Wright said don't be surprised if those "voluntary" pay cuts are quietly rescinded by senators down the line, when the spotlight fades and we have made our peace with a lesser California.

--

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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