California lawmakers are getting their first pay raise in six years next month, and unlike previous increases, only a handful are turning down the larger paycheck.
The independent commission that sets pay and benefits for 120 legislators and 12 constitutional officers trimmed compensation as the state struggled through the recession. But with the economy on the rise and tax revenue ticking up, the panel decided that a 5.3 percent partial restoration – to $95,291 from $90,526 annually for rank-and-file lawmakers – was appropriate beginning Dec. 1.
So far, only eight legislators have told the state controller they will turn down the extra money, far fewer than the 21 who rebuffed the last pay hike – 2.75 percent in 2007 – granted as leaders grappled with a $10 billion budget shortfall.
Politicians during the economic recession saw the California Citizens Compensation Commission slash their salaries by nearly 23 percent, a $26,000 cutback for legislators and $47,000 for the governor.
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Even before the upcoming raise, base pay for California lawmakers was the highest in the nation. While they do not receive pensions, most accept tax-free per diem checks of roughly $30,000 a year.
Six of the eight legislators not taking the raise are freshmen, so their salaries have not changed since taking office. Two of them – Assemblyman Ken Cooley of Rancho Cordova and Sen. Richard Roth of Riverside, both Democrats – are in competitive districts and expect to have challenging re-election campaigns.
Some lawmakers said it would be misguided to accept a raise they believe was made possible by voters approving Proposition 30’s sales and income tax hikes last November. Others rejecting the pay bumps contend that few of their constituents are receiving comparable increases and expressed trepidation about contributing to the already low perceptions of state government and its elected leaders.
“If the people of California are still looking for jobs, if they are not getting raises, it might not be the best time for legislators to be taking raises, either,” said Assemblyman Travis Allen, R-Huntington Beach.
Allen, who owns a company where he works as an investment adviser, said he knew what the salary was when he accepted the position and was uncomfortable taking more money. Just because voters decided to raise taxes and increase state revenue, “that didn’t seem to be adequate justification to raise legislator salaries,” he said.
Accepting the raise sends the message that lawmakers are putting themselves before taxpayers, said Assemblyman Allan Mansoor, R-Costa Mesa.
“Schools are still being shortchanged. Our infrastructure is woefully inadequate and underfunded. We have tons of pension debt. We still have water issues that need to be addressed and funded. And our economy isn’t really roaring right now, either,” Mansoor said. “So let’s continue to be a little more responsible in how we manage our government before we give ourselves pay raises.”
In granting the increases last spring, along with rescinding roughly half of the 18- to 20-percent reductions to officeholders’ health, dental and vision benefits, compensation commissioners said they were merely reversing the latest pay cut – imposed a year ago. They also cited the improving state budget picture as well as the modest raises being handed down to most state workers as part of their newly approved contracts.
Jaime Regalado, retired executive director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles, said more lawmakers may be accepting the raise this year because people are generally feeling better about how the state is functioning.
“Sacramento’s standing in public opinion is better than it had been. That’s not saying a whole lot; but it says a little bit,” Regalado said. “They see the governor as somebody who is very popular in the state and is holding the line not only on most fiscal issues but many of his party’s fiscal issues.”
That in part has given lawmakers less to worry about come election time.
“When more declined, I think they thought there was still some political risk on the one hand in accepting a raise while on the other they would look perhaps like champions,” Regalado said. “They were the few people who were not going to take a raise if very few people in California were getting a raise at the time.”
But even some lawmakers who believe the state is turning a financial corner said they remained worried that too few residents were sharing in the recovery.
“We’ve had on-time, balanced budgets and have gotten rid of the structural deficit. But we still are not seeing revenues growing to the extent we want,” Cooley said. “While the economy is coming back, there are still plenty of Californians whose lives that has not touched yet.”
Supporters of the raises pointed to higher salaries for many in local government, including city managers, municipal attorneys and elected supervisors and council members. In the California Legislature alone, at least 365 aides earned more than $95,291 last year.
Cooley made nearly $109,000 annually before being sworn into office.
Steve Boilard, executive director of the Center for California Studies at California State University, Sacramento, said the annual exercise of examining salaries raises the larger public policy question of whether the state’s goal is to recruit candidates and retain officeholders of modest means who rely on a government salary or attract those who are independently wealthy and perhaps could afford to make less.
“Rather than looking at a year-to-year change, the better question is, ‘Is the amount of money we are paying them appropriate?’” Boilard said.
Beginning this December, the annual cost of pay raises and benefit restoration for the Legislature will total less than $1 million.
“We are largely talking about symbolism,” said Boilard, who spent more than a decade with the California Legislative Analyst’s Office. “It’s not going to make any meaningful impact on the state treasury, and I would even argue it won’t make a big impact on the legislators themselves.”
“I wouldn’t view this as a highly sacrificial move to not take the 5 percent restoration,” he added.
While those who accept a raise could face criticism during an election, voters are more likely to penalize candidates they perceive as being hypocritical, said Andrew Acosta, a Democratic political consultant in Sacramento.
Acosta pointed to the list of lawmakers over the years who initially rejected tens of thousands of dollars in raises only to quietly change their minds when the focus shifted away – sometimes after winning re-election or successfully seeking a new elected office.
Voters “tend to get angrier at people who say one thing and do another,” he said.
Others rebuffing the raise are Assemblymen Rocky Chávez, R-Oceanside; Tim Donnelly, R-Twin Peaks; Eric Linder, R-Corona; and Jim Patterson, R-Fresno.
Patterson said lawmakers receive more than adequate paychecks, money for in-session expenses and protection from sergeants at arms.
He said elected leaders must guard against putting themselves in circumstances that separate them from the kinds of everyday activities and routines the people they represent go through.
“We cannot have sympathy, and I don’t think we can have understanding, if we don’t try very hard to walk in the shoes of the people we represent,” Patterson said. “Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.”