RANDALL BENTON / Sacramento Bee Staff Photo

The Senate increased the pay of at least 169 employees during a three-month period ending Oct. 31.

Senate staff raises small compared with budget, but timing questioned

Published: Thursday, Nov. 17, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2011 - 10:29 am

California's chronic budget problems haven't stopped the state Senate from giving some of its own staff members a bump in pay, handing out raises averaging 7 percent to dozens of workers in recent months.

The Senate increased the pay of at least 169 employees – nearly one-fifth of the staff – during a three-month period ending October 31.

The raises affected staff members serving in many levels of Senate operations, including Capitol security technicians, printing specialists and district workers.

The changes also boosted the paychecks of some of the Capitol's highest-paid aides. Nine chiefs of staff, including the top aide to Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, saw their six-figure salaries rise by as much as 10 percent.

At least 10 additional staff members are making more money because of changes to their job classifications, with promotions leading to salary increases of more than 25 percent in some cases.

Steinberg spokeswoman Alicia Trost cited several factors for the salary increases. She said some were merit-based raises, while others resulted from increased hours or added responsibilities. A full breakdown was not available Wednesday evening.

Trost defended the merit-based increases as "reasonable" considering most Senate staffers have not received merit raises or cost-of-living adjustments since 2007.

"Even with these increases, the Senate has reduced its overall budget this year by millions of dollars," she said.

Still, one good-government advocate said that given the state's fiscal troubles, now isn't the time to raise staff salaries.

"Nobody's getting rich being a Senate staffer, and the amount of money is minuscule in the scheme of things, but it sends the wrong message," said Robert Stern, a former legislative aide who served as president of the recently shuttered Center for Governmental Studies. "Agencies are being cut, welfare recipients are now getting decreases and everyone is tightening their belts except, it sounds like, the Senate staffers."

The raises, reported in salary data posted on the Senate website this week, come as schools and colleges across the state brace for mid-year cuts due to lower-than-projected revenues. Some Democratic lawmakers have renewed calls for tax increases to help fill a projected $13 billion deficit and avoid more cuts next year.

Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayer Association, said moves such as staff raises could make it tougher for lawmakers to make the case for those taxes. Coupal said that while the amount of money in question is "negligible" compared against the total deficit, increases in staff salaries are the "kind of thing that voters are going to look at when they are asked to raise taxes."

"There's not a lot of sympathy from people who have lost jobs to hear someone say 'I haven't had a raise in (several) years,' " he said.

The Assembly has not given any raises unrelated to promotions since August, when payroll data for the first eight months of the year was last made public, according to Assembly administrator Jon Waldie. He said any decisions on merit-based increases would likely be made in the next couple of months.

More than 200 aides in both houses saw their salaries jump earlier this year.

At the time, leaders in both the Assembly and Senate said many of those increases were tied to job changes or increased hours.

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Read more articles by Torey Van Oot

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