In a decision that surprised many lawmakers, a citizens commission charged with setting the salaries of the state's elected officials Friday granted legislators a 37% pay increase from $52,500 to $72,000 a year, effective in December. The raise will make California legislators the highest-paid in the country.
The commission's decision, made on a 5-2 vote Friday afternoon when few lawmakers were in the Capitol, is final. The additional pay will cost taxpayers $2.5 million annually and comes as the state faces a $5-billion budget shortfall.
Some legislators, sensing the wrath of voters in the June and November elections, quickly pledged to refuse the pay increase, the first granted them since 1990.
The commission, created by voters when they approved Proposition 112 in 1990 as part of a reform package, said it granted the raises after reviewing salaries of other state officials, including judges.
The raises were needed, the commission majority said, to attract qualified candidates who, under term limits, cannot make the Legislature their career and need a good salary to leave their jobs.
The commission granted legislative leaders greater pay increases, in recognition of their additional duties. Senate President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer and Assembly Speaker Willie Brown will receive $86,400 annually. Both are lawyers with private practices.
The Republican leaders, Sen. Ken Maddy (R-Fresno) and Assemblyman Jim Brulte (R-Rancho Cucamonga), will receive $79,200, as will the Democratic floor leaders, Sen. Henry Mello of Watsonville and Assemblyman Thomas M. Hannigan of Benicia, the commission ruled.
Legislators, who receive numerous fringe benefits beyond their salaries, including a $101-a-day tax-free per diem to cover living expenses while they are in session, now will have a total compensation package worth about $100,000 a year.
Lockyer, who is known for putting in unusually long hours, said: "It is an appropriate salary given the levels of responsibility, stress and effort that legislative jobs entail."
But Lockyer acknowledged that there could be a backlash, even though the decision was made by an independent commission. "Campaign opponents always have something they can throw at you," he said.
Radio talk shows already were abuzz Friday afternoon, as were many critics of Sacramento.
"This pushes Paula Jones, Haiti and caning off the air--unless people start proposing caning legislators," said Duane Garrett, a San Francisco radio talk show host and longtime Democratic activist.
"This is a political Pearl Harbor," said Tom McClintock, a conservative Republican and former state legislator running for state controller. "It will ignite a firestorm of taxpayer resentment, anger and action."
Some critics noted that the seven-member commission made its decision on the day that California's new unemployment numbers were released, showing joblessness increasing to 9.6% in April, a jump of 1.3% over March.
"There is never good timing," Assemblyman Phil Isenberg (D-Sacramento) said. "We could be at 0% unemployment and it would still be controversial."
Acting only a month before the June primary, commission Chairman Claude Brinegar said he was aware that there would be criticism.
"We are convinced this is the right thing to do for the state of California," Brinegar, a member of the board of Unocal, told reporters afterward, "and further delay would not produce any worthwhile results.
"With term limits, we feel it is urgent that we attract candidates to run for the Legislature who represent a balanced mix--not just people who are retired or want to be here for the power, but people who are willing to take mid-career interruptions to serve the state."
Several other commissioners said it was time for legislative salary increases because the pay is too low to attract high-quality people to give up other more lucrative careers to run for the Assembly and Senate.
Before reaching its decision, the commission conducted a salary survey of other state and local government positions and private industry posts. Congressmen and U.S. senators are paid $133,600; Gov. Pete Wilson is eligible to receive $120,000 but voluntarily takes only $114,000, and Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan's salary is $123,778, but he accepts only $1.
"Frankly, I thought it was reasonable," said Maddy, the Republican leader in the Senate. "People entering politics are not looking at pensions or longevity. In some fashion, it has to be pay that is reasonable and commensurate with what's going on in government."
In addition to fringe benefits, veteran lawmakers have a very good pension plan, although legislators elected after the 1990 passage of Proposition 140, the term limit measure, do not receive pensions.
All lawmakers also receive life insurance policies, medical and dental care benefits, free telephone and gasoline credit cards for legislative purposes, and can obtain new leased automobiles every few years with the state paying the majority of the cost.
Despite a $250 annual limit on gifts from a single source, lawmakers receive free tickets to attend entertainment events such as Disneyland, the Academy Awards, USC and UCLA football games, movies and professional football, basketball and baseball games.
Some also take paid-for junkets to countries that generally come under the heading of trade missions.
The salary-setting commission's members are gubernatorial appointees. Since 1990, state budget problems have prompted the commission to freeze the legislative salary level at $52,500, which represented an increase from the previous $40,816.
In addition to Brinegar, Commissioners Jim Green, Andy Hopwood, George Nesterczuk and John Ohanesian voted for the pay hike. Commissioners Steven Hayward and Janice Baird voted no. Hayward said he was concerned about the combination of salary and per diem allowance and Baird indicated that she was in favor of a lower raise, perhaps to the $65,000 range.
The commission is required to meet by June 30 of each year and will not meet until next year.
"The pay commission is an independent panel and is charged by the electorate to make this decision, and we are not going to question their judgment," said Sean Walsh, Wilson's spokesman.
At California Common Cause, one of the backers of the 1990 initiative that created the salary commission, director Ruth Holton said: "We support a cost-of-living increase. This is probably on the high end . . . You don't want the salaries to be too low. You want to attract quality people."
Isenberg said most lawmakers will accept the pay raise, but added: "Others will say they oppose it and take it later. Everybody does have to go before the voters. They can vote them out if they don't like their answer."
Among those who was considering not taking the extra money is Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), who said he plans to give it as scholarships to students who cannot afford to attend state universities because of increasing tuition.
"This commission is supposed to be apolitical but not out of touch," said Hayden, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor. "I don't know how we could raise our salaries 37% when we're downsizing education."
Sen. Quentin L. Kopp, a San Francisco independent who practices law when he is not in the Capitol, said he would reject the raise. "I appreciate the kind thoughts of the commission as to our worth individually and collectively, but I won't accept the increase."
The California Citizens Compensation Commission's members are appointed by the governor and they must consider judges' salaries as one of the factors in setting salaries for the Legislature and statewide officers. Salaries for state judges have risen 10% since 1990.
Comparable legislative salaries for states with full-time Legislatures:
California (as of December): $72,000
New York: $57,500
California (now): $52,500
Supreme Court chief justice: $133,459
Supreme Court associate justice: $127,267
Appellate Court justice: $119,314
Superior Court judge: $104,262
Municipal Court judge: $95,214
Average salary range for selected public and private sector jobs in Los Angeles area:
Budget analyst: $37,252--$45,848
Police officer: $33,862--$44,803
Teacher: $40,035 (statewide average)
Source: Department of Personnel Administration