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A payday judgment day in Sacramento

Reducing lawmakers salaries can give them a valuable lesson in shared sacrifice.

November 27, 2009

Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown certainly knows how to warm the hearts of Californians who are angry at their government: slash politicians' salaries. Last week he signed off on the full 18% reduction ordered earlier this year by the independent panel that sets official pay.

But Brown went one satisfying step further. The Citizens Compensation Commission had ordered the reduction to begin next year when new lawmakers take office, and the Legislature asked the attorney general if that was legal. Not only are the pay cuts legal, he said, they can start right now.

Not always the best at learning from their mistakes, lawmakers are considering whether to challenge Brown's opinion. They should be careful. If the last challenge brought the cuts sooner, maybe the next challenge will make them retroactive. It's not likely, but it's fun to think about.

It's not that Californians take pleasure in inflicting financial pain on their elected officials. OK, maybe we do. And why not? Residents are suffering from monumental levels of unemployment, taxes are up and many state employees have been forced to take unpaid time off. Politicians should not expect to collect their full pay when other workers, public and private, must make do with less. Elected officials should gracefully accept the cuts. Most state senators, to their credit, already have taken a voluntary 5% reduction.

Even if lawmakers are forced to share the state's collective pain, though, the rest of us shouldn't overstate the value of wringing a few dollars from their pockets. As well-paid as they may be -- $116,208 in yearly base pay for members of the Legislature, dropping to $95,291 beginning Dec. 7 if the attorney general's opinion holds up -- they are not hoarding enough cash to get the state out of its fiscal mess. Next year's budget shortfall is expected to be about 7,000 times the $2.9 million the cuts would save.

Besides, lawmakers' salaries are not the problem. We should be more concerned about the other coin of their realm -- political donations from interests pushing favored bits of legislation. The recession has done nothing to slow that kind of Sacramento spending this year. In fact, decent salaries that allow politicians to pay their mortgages, plus per diems that pay for their weekday quarters in Sacramento, help guard against the temptation to illegally use some of that political largesse for personal lifestyle enhancements. If any politician deserves to be punished for his or her supposed role in overspending, the place to do it is at the ballot box. Meanwhile, the pay cuts will be good for their character -- not as punishment, but as a way for legislators to pitch in when money is in short supply.

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