Last year, the seven-member panel that sets pay levels for state elected officials gave lawmakers a buzz cut: 18% of their salaries came off the top. The typical member of the Legislature who had been earning $116,208 a year now makes $95,291. With the economy in deep recession, the state budget in a multibillion-dollar hole and public workers being furloughed, it made sense for employees at the top of the state organizational chart to share some of the burden. Their pay cut was steep, but it still left them with reasonable salaries that match their workload and allow them to support their families.
Now the state Citizens Compensation Commission is poised to consider another cut at its June 16 meeting. It's no time to restore the pay that was cut last year, but there is no legitimate reason for additional cuts and plenty of reasons for the commission to leave lawmaker salaries alone.
First, the whole point of Proposition 112, which voters approved in 1990, was to depoliticize politicians' pay. Up until then, they could set their own salaries — an obvious conflict of interest. To eliminate the conflict, the ballot measure entrusted salary decisions to a new compensation panel, appointed by the governor. Now, though, there is a disturbing confluence of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's desire to pressure the Legislature to accept his budget terms and the commission's plan to impose further pay cuts. Consider, for example, the fact that the panel is set to act the day after the Legislature is supposed to finish its budget work. The unspoken message is, "Get it done or get your pay cut." That's not depoliticizing pay; that's making it more political than ever.
Second, the point of last year's cut was to spread the budget pain, not to punish anyone for poor performance. As good as it may feel for average Californians to see their representatives' pay cut during a recession and at a time of governmental dysfunction — and the commission has gotten its share of e-mails from some of them — the proper time for punishment is election day, and the proper people to inflict it are voters, not political appointees.
Third, further cuts would discourage capable people with families to raise from running for office. Meanwhile, Sacramento lobbyists and staffers would still be bringing in the big bucks. If voters prefer a part-time Legislature doing part-time work for part-time pay, as we had in California until 1966, they can make that decision. At least one measure for a part-time Legislature circulated for signatures last year, and similar measures are under consideration. The Times doesn't support a return to a Legislature of part-timers, but if the state is going to go that route, the ballot is the correct way to do it.