California Assembly fattening paychecks for some employees

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 3A

The Assembly is fattening paychecks for numerous employees this holiday season.

Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez has authorized salary hikes ranging from 3.6 percent to 5 percent for aides who have not received a merit increase in three years or more.

The raise is not automatic – lawmakers employing those aides must request it and have ample funds in their individual budgets to support it, said Jon Waldie, Assembly administrator.

"These are people who have not had a merit raise, some of them for five-plus years, and they're being offered a very small increase," Waldie said.

The pay hikes will take effect Thursday for legislative offices that submit requests quickly, Waldie said. The offer is expected to extend into 2012.

No statistics were available Tuesday on the potential cost of the raises or how many of the Assembly's 1,200-plus employees are eligible for the raises now or will be in months to come.

The Assembly's decision comes on the heels of larger salary increases granted by the Senate – averaging 7 percent – to at least 169 employees, nearly one-fifth of its staff.

Nine Senate 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 during a three-month period ending Oct. 31.

Both houses are sweetening pay at a time when the state faces a budget deficit estimated at $12.8 billion through June 2013. Schools and colleges statewide are bracing for midyear cuts due to lower-than-projected revenues.

Larry Gerston, political science professor at San Jose State University, said the Assembly's raises are not excessive but that their timing is wrong, sending a terrible message as "this state is falling apart by the day."

"The amount of money here is insignificant, but the symbolism is huge," Gerston said. "This screams a group of people, legislators, in a very cloistered environment with little concern for all the problems around them."

Assembly officials noted that the lower house has tightened its belt for years in response to the budget crisis. Its budget this year is $146.7 million, of which about $24 million has been donated to other state agencies, records show.

Robin Swanson, spokeswoman for Pérez, noted that the salary increase is optional. "This very modest investment in the people who have worked here for years without a raise is small by comparison to the cuts made," Swanson said in a written statement.

The highest salary hikes, 5 percent, will be reserved for employees on the low end of the salary scale, Waldie said.

Lawmakers can opt not to request pay hikes for their eligible employees, or they can seek smaller raises than the 3.6 percent to 5 percent authorized by Pérez, Waldie said.

The raises could help the Assembly avoid losing valuable employees to private industry, the Senate, or other employers, Waldie said.

Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, said he is dismayed by the decision to hike salaries. His staff does "fantastic work" and deserves higher pay, but "I can't in good conscience" request it, he said.

"At this point in time, in our fiscal condition, it's the wrong thing to do," Huffman said.

Assemblyman Dan Logue, R-Linda, said that he would prefer that salaries not be raised but that hikes may be warranted in specific cases.

"If you have someone who has worked real hard and started at a bare-bones salary, it's something to take a look at," he said.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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