Big raises for state officials

Times Staff Writer

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has quietly given substantial raises -- some exceeding 23% -- to top state administrators, claiming they deserve increased compensation to keep pace with the private sector and local government agencies.

Last year, the governor used a new state law to raise the salary of his prisons secretary to $225,000, a 71% increase that made James Tilton among the highest paid officials in California state government. Now Schwarzenegger is approving hefty pay hikes for 49 other officials.

Cabinet secretaries, for example, will receive up to 22.7% more, and department directors up to 12.2%. The new salaries take effect April 1.

The largest percentage increase will go to Schwarzenegger’s director of the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, Ruben Grijalva, whose pay will go from $133,732 to $169,500, about 27% more.


“For the state to deliver these essential services for Californians, it has to pay competitive salaries,” said Aaron McLear, a spokesman for the governor’s office. “Right now, that’s not happening.”

Schwarzenegger is permitted to set salaries at these levels under a bill written last year by then-Assemblyman Mark Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles).

Wages throughout the state, in both public and private sectors, have been largely flat in recent years. A study last August by the Institute of Industrial Relations at UC Berkeley concluded that the average wage in California, adjusted for inflation, was 0.2% lower in 2006 than it was in 2003. The governor’s raises coincide with a prediction by state officials of a shortfall of more than $726 million for the 2007-08 state budget.

“I’m glad the governor recognizes the value of public service,” said J.J. Jelincic, president of the California State Employees Assn., which represents about 140,000 state workers. “It’s a shame he doesn’t recognize the value of the people who actually do the work.”

With better pay available in county and city governments, Schwarzenegger administration officials said they need to raise salaries to attract the best candidates for top jobs in the state’s massive bureaucracy.

The state Department of Personnel Administration, trying to document what its officials believed was the disparity in pay between state and local government officials, conducted a survey more than a year ago. It concluded that state pay is indeed lagging.

As an example, the department cited the salary of California Highway Patrol Commissioner Mike Brown. His pay, now $142,584, is about 36% below that of the average police chief or sheriff in major California population centers, the study showed.

The CHP commissioner runs the third-largest law enforcement agency in the state, with nearly 7,300 sworn officers, according to the personnel department. Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, by comparison, runs a department of more than 9,400 budgeted sworn officers and is paid $259,587, 82% more than Brown.

Brown’s salary is more in line with that of chiefs who run departments one-tenth the size of the CHP, according to the state Department of Personnel Administration.

Tim Hodson, director of the Center for California Studies at Cal State Sacramento and a former state Senate aide, said local government officials have long earned more than state counterparts. “I would submit that it’s largely a function of visibility. Pay levels at the state level are visible and are looked at by news organizations up and down the state, as well as citizen groups.”

State officials said no new money will be used to finance the raises. Rather, departments will be expected to find the money within existing budgets, possibly by not filling vacant positions.

Lawmakers interviewed Monday said the raises are necessary for recruitment.

“If you want to get good people in there, you need to pay them commensurately with what they can get on the outside,” said Senate Republican leader Dick Ackerman (R-Irvine).

At state government’s lower levels, salaries are not rising as fast, union leaders said Monday. Earlier this year, a group of about 25,000 managers and supervisors received a 3.5% pay hike, their first increase in six years, said Tim Behrens, president of the Assn. of California State Supervisors.

The governor is raising salaries of some of his top political appointees at a time when the state’s budget picture is grim and may get worse. Elizabeth G. Hill, the state’s nonpartisan legislative analyst, said California could face a shortfall of billions of dollars under Schwarzenegger’s budget if the Legislature balks at proposed spending cuts.

And some lawmakers are not enthusiastic about cuts championed by the governor, including proposals to reduce welfare programs by hundreds of millions of dollars and slash public transportation aid by more than $1.1 billion.

Hill also cautioned that the governor’s call for providing health insurance to every Californian could cost billions more than the governor’s budget blueprint suggests, potentially driving the state deeper into debt.

Separately, the Schwarzenegger administration is proposing to boost spending in the governor’s office about 5% to cover improvements in the computer system. McLear said that money -- about $1 million -- would not go toward salary increases.

Schwarzenegger’s preference has been to supplement salaries of his closest advisors through campaign donations. In her first year as Schwarzenegger’s chief of staff, Susan Kennedy, for example, received a total of $323,500 in campaign and taxpayer money.


Times staff writer Evan Halper contributed to this report.