Capitol Alert

California Senate lays off dozens of staff members

Senate President Pro Tem Kevin De Léon, D-Los Angeles, cut 39 jobs from the chamber’s payroll.
Senate President Pro Tem Kevin De Léon, D-Los Angeles, cut 39 jobs from the chamber’s payroll.

A month after taking leadership of the California Senate, Sen. Kevin de León on Friday cut 39 jobs, which amounts to more than a quarter of the staff working for the Senate’s administrative arm.

The Los Angeles Democrat – who joined the Legislature after a career in organized labor – blamed the reductions on budget problems, issuing a statement that called the layoffs “difficult but fiscally necessary.”

“These were all agonizing decisions, but they were unavoidable and made in the public interest. This Senate bears an ultimate responsibility to our constituents and to California taxpayers to live within our fiscal means, even when it means doing more with less,” de León’s statement said.

The layoffs do not affect employees who work for individual senators or policy committees. Instead, they are all concentrated in units that report directly to the Senate’s administrative leadership, which has undergone an overhaul in recent weeks.

It’s not surprising that a new reign of leadership in the Senate would choose to make some staffing changes. People who work for the Legislature are at-will employees, so they can be let go at any time without cause.

But the scale of Friday’s layoffs caught many in the Capitol by surprise. The 39 layoffs represent about 4 percent of the Senate’s overall staff, but more than a quarter of the 150 people who work under the administrative arm. Some of them were veteran aides earning six-figure salaries. Others were secretaries who earned less than $40,000 a year.

“I don’t think this is a purge in the political sense. I think it’s a reaction to what apparently is a serious shortfall in cash,” said Don Perata, a Democrat who was Senate president pro tem from 2004 to 2008. “I believe that Kevin has inherited something he was unaware of. I really believe that.”

The layoffs include all 21 people who work for the office services unit, a pool of administrative assistants who fill in during vacancies; nine of 12 people who work in the Senate’s floor analysis unit, which is responsible for writing bill analyses; and seven of the 24 people who work in the office of research, a unit whose duties include vetting gubernatorial appointees. Officials also eliminated two positions in that office that had been vacant.

Senate officials said they hope to eliminate more positions in the months ahead through attrition.

The changes come as former Senate leader Darrell Steinberg is leaving office due to term limits. He was replaced as pro tem last month by de León. The Senate’s longtime chief administrator, Greg Schmidt, retired in October and was replaced by Danny Alvarez. The Senate’s longtime chief of security, Tony Beard, retired in August and was replaced by Debbie Manning. The Senate’s longtime head of human resources, Dina Hidalgo, retired in September following complaints that she abused her position to help family members land jobs in the Capitol. Her position remains vacant.

“Based on a thorough review of the current fiscal condition of the State Senate, as well as the operations of the institution, we have made the difficult decision to eliminate positions and begin the process of restructuring and reorganizing many of the service functions provided to the members, staff and public,” says a memo Alvarez sent to senators and Senate staff on Friday.

The Sacramento Bee talked to numerous Senate staff members who were laid off Friday, but none of them would comment publicly. Some planned to apply for jobs with newly elected legislators and said that talking to the media could harm their odds of landing a job or negotiating a severance. The Senate offered the laid-off workers a severance worth one month of pay if they had worked for the Senate less than five years, and two months of salary if they had worked there for longer.

Renee Sanchez, an administrative assistant who got laid off Friday, posted this on Facebook: “Please say a prayer or think a kind thought for me today. I’m really going to need it.”

To cope with the budget crunch, Senate officials also imposed a new requirement – to begin in January – that staff members make a monthly contribution toward their health care costs. The contribution is $15 or $30 a month depending on the employee’s salary.

Officials blamed the Senate’s budget problem on a smaller-than-expected increase in state funding for the Legislature in the 2014-15 year, which was 0.48 percent. The prior year, the Legislature’s allocation went up by 5.8 percent. The smaller increase for this year led Senate officials to believe they would face a budget deficit if they didn’t reduce costs. Officials did not specify the amount of shortfall they face in the budget, which is more than $115 million this year.

The Assembly also received the smaller increase this year, yet no comparable layoffs are planned for employees of the lower house, according to Assembly Rules Committee chief administrative officer Debra Gravert.

“Obviously there’s staff that will be termed out with their members, but we don’t plan on any layoffs,” Gravert said.

While Gravert acknowledged a sharp dip in the Legislature’s annual budget increase, she said the Assembly should be able to weather the change. Unlike in the Senate, the Assembly does not employ a dedicated floor research unit. Its secretarial services unit vanished years ago.

“We in the Assembly will be fine to live within the amount of our allocation without making any cuts,” Gravert said.

The difference may stem from the different ways the Senate and the Assembly managed their money during the recession. Legislative budgets are determined by a formula voters enacted in 1990 through Proposition 140. It increases the Legislature’s budget in most years to reflect growth in population and cost of living.

After the recession hit in 2008, the Assembly donated 15 percent of its allocation to chosen state agencies and programs that had taken budget cuts. The Senate took less than its full allocation, shorting its budget by a combined $11.2 million over the last few years, Senate officials said.

Because the formula builds on the prior year’s funding, the Senate’s method of weathering the recession compounded the slower growth over time, while the Assembly’s stayed at the expected rate, Senate officials said.

“Back in the days of the recession we made a decision – I made a decision – to not take ... the state allocation limit increase that we were entitled to as a result of the formula under Proposition 140,” Steinberg said Friday.

“I made that decision on behalf of the Senate because state workers were being furloughed, people were being laid off. It was a very, very difficult time,” he said. “I know it’s very tough on Sen. De León and his team as well, but those were the numbers, and I stand behind his decisions.”

Call Laurel Rosenhall, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1083. Follow her on Twitter @LaurelRosenhall. David Siders and Jim Miller of The Bee Capitol Bureau contributed to this report.