Politics & Government

California lawmakers, governor get raises as state finances improve

Gov. Jerry Brown, California lawmakers and other elected officials will be getting a 2 percent raise this year.

Pointing to California’s firmer fiscal footing, a panel that sets salaries for elected officials voted 4-1 Friday to enact a pay boost. Starting Dec. 1, the raise will add $1,906 to lawmakers’ annual $95,291 salary, giving them a yearly pay of $97,197. The raise for Gov. Jerry Brown will be $3,480, taking him to $177,467 a year.

Years of yawning budget deficits have given way to a surplus, allowing California to pass an on-time budget this year with minimal friction. Those sunnier circumstances framed the debate among members of the California Citizens Compensation Commission and guided Friday’s decision to hike pay for the second consecutive year.

“It would be hard to argue, I believe, that the state is not better off financially today than it was a few years ago,” said commissioner Scott Somers, a corporate executive and compensation expert. “If they get tarred when times are tough,” he added in reference to elected officials, “they ought to at least get some credit when things are improving.”

Because the new salaries don’t take effect until December, suspended Democratic state Sens. Ron Calderon and Leland Yee – both forced from office by term limits at the end of this year – will not benefit from the increase. A third state senator who is suspended but still receiving pay, Roderick Wright, could receive the enlarged salary if a judge has not finalized Wright’s pending sentence for lying about his residence.

The sole dissenting vote Friday came from commissioner and Central Valley property developer Anthony Barkett, who repeatedly expressed reservations about acting so soon after the state has climbed out of a devastating recession. He urged members to first consider the broader question of whether pre-recession base pay rates were appropriate.

“We raised taxes. That’s why we have the money to do what we’ve done,” Barkett said, referencing the temporary tax hike enacted via Proposition 30. “We just got through a huge recession, and I need a little time to make sure that the economy’s real.”

California lawmakers are the best-compensated state legislators in the country. They lead the field even though their pay was cut twice during the recession, reductions that the pay commission partially reversed last year with a 5 percent boost. The next-largest paychecks go to legislators in Pennsylvania, who made $83,801 in 2013.

Despite earning more than their counterparts in other states, Sacramento lawmakers bring home less than many city and county officials in California. Members of the Los Angeles City Council and San Francisco Board of Supervisors draw larger paychecks than state legislators, as do supervisors in 16 separate counties.

“I think that where (members of the Legislature) are compensated is low based on all the indices that staff provided us,” said Commissioner Nancy Miller, a practicing attorney in Sacramento.

Complicating comparisons to other states and cities is that California lawmakers cannot draw pensions, a prohibition voters enacted along with term limits back in 1990.

“I’m sure when the people of California decided to remove pension benefits from the legislative members, they didn’t expect us to increase current compensation to make up for it,” Somers said. “On the other hand, it is very difficult to compare apples to apples for our Assembly members and senators, compared to either other elected positions in California or other elected positions outside of the state, without at least considering the impact of the loss of pensions.”

State lawmakers in New York and Ohio, for instance – both states that, like California, have full-time legislatures – receive retirement benefits, although their base salaries are lower. Lawmakers in Texas, where the part-time Legislature meets every other year, earn $7,200 in salary but are eligible for retirement money.

Before ratifying the 2 percent raise, lawmakers contemplated boosting pay across the board by as much as 5 percent. Even if commissioners had opted for the larger increase, lawmakers would still make less than they did before an 18 percent cut enacted in the teeth of the recession.

“I am mindful of the reduction in salary that took place in 2009,” Miller said, “so I’m not sure we’re yet at a base.”

But even as lawmaker pay has fluctuated, argued Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association President Jon Coupal, one factor has remained constant: California legislators’ status as the highest-paid in the country. That is not justifiable, he said, echoing Barkett’s point that California’s fiscal revival stems in part from a tax increase.

“If anyone needs to be congratulated and rewarded, it should be the beleaguered taxpayer of California,” Coupal said. “The political class is virtually breaking their arm trying to pat themselves in the back for this (recovery), and we don’t think that’s appropriate.”

Related stories from Sacramento Bee