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Have California lawmakers earned their new 5% pay raises?

June 19, 2013|By Robert Greene
  • A crane places the state Christmas tree in front of the Capitol in Sacramento 2012, at about the same time lawmakers got the latest in a series of pay cuts. They got this year's seven months early with a 5% salary increase.
A crane places the state Christmas tree in front of the Capitol in Sacramento… (AP Photo / Rich Pedroncelli )

Gov. Jerry Brown and members of the Legislature are getting pay raises. The little-known California Citizens Compensation Commission voted Wednesday to permit 5% salary increases for all statewide elected officials, the 80 members of the Assembly and the 40 members of the Senate.

Should we be outraged?

We should not. The question at hand shouldn’t be whether these politicians deserve pay raises or indeed whether they deserve any salary at all. That’s something we as voters answer at the ballot box. Public officials’ pay is not, and should not be, awarded like a letter grade based on performance. There is instead a pass-fail test. Perform well and you get another term. Perform poorly and you’re out of work.

That’s the way it is for most private-sector employees. True, workers who do exceptionally well may get more money, sometimes as a bonus, sometimes as a permanent raise. But if performance slips, there is rarely a pay cut option. Employees who no longer earn their keep usually get fired.

Yes, they sometimes have to take pay cuts, but that usually happens to employees for the same reason it happens to business owners: revenues are down and there’s not enough money to go around.

That’s what happened with California politicians in 2009 when this same Compensation Commission voted to cut the pay of elected officials 18%. State revenues were way down, lawmakers had to cut budgets deeply, and it only made sense that they shared the pain they were inflicting on contractors, aid recipients and others.

Pay for a typical member of the Legislature dropped that year from $116,208 a year to $95,291 (those in leadership positions earn a bit more). The cut may have pleased some Californians, and it certainly made members of the Legislature unhappy; but the cut was not, and should not have been, an act of punishment. As we at the Times editorial page wrote at the time that it was a way to ensure that politicians pitch in when the state is in financial distress. It helped them feel a small slice of the pain felt by other Californians after the mortgage meltdown. That can only clarify, for them, the impact of their policy decisions.

We felt differently about an additional cut proposed the following year. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was at the time trying to pressure the Legislature to accept his budget, and it appeared that he was using the commission’s plan for additional cuts as leverage. But the point of the commission, voted into existence by Californians in 1990, was to depoliticize politicians’ compensation, and Schwarzenegger appeared to be undermining that goal by making pay more political than ever.

The editorial page weighed in on the pay question yet again when then-Assemblyman, now City Councilman-elect Gil Cedillo appealed the pay cut to a government claims board.

By the way, members of the Los Angeles City Council are paid almost twice as much as members of the Legislature. That's also the result of a ballot measure, also in 1990, to make pay decisions less political. L.A. voters adopted Measure H to peg council salaries to those of Municipal Court judges. When the municipal courts were phased out, council salaries automatically jumped to equal those of Superior Court judges. Council members seem only too happy to have lost power to set their own salaries in exchange for being paid so much. It may have been wiser to peg their pay to that of state lawmakers.

Lawmakers’ pay ultimately was cut to $90,526 late last year. Today’s action brings it back to $95,291 – but not to the $116,208 it was before November 2009.

Is it a pay raise or a restoration? It hardly matters. The point is that lawmakers no longer get to set their own pay, as they did until 1990, and they don't get to block cuts when the commission finds that cuts are warranted.

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