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Assembly leaders withdraw staffers’ pay hikes

State Assembly leaders Wednesday rescinded $551,000 in pay raises recently awarded to 136 legislative staffers, acknowledging that the pay hikes sent the wrong message at a time when the state is in financial crisis and tens of thousands of other government employees have had their salaries cut.

Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) said she was concerned that the increases, which averaged 5%, had become a distraction from the campaign she is leading for approval of six budget-related ballot measures in the May 19 special election.

“I absolutely don’t want the people who oppose public education to use this as some sort of club against the responsible, urgently needed ballot initiatives Californians will be voting on,” Bass said at a Capitol news conference. She said she would not rule out future pay hikes.

Minority leader Michael Villines (R-Clovis) said the merit raises he and Bass approved, most of them effective April 1, gave Californians the mistaken impression that the leaders did not appreciate how economically tough things are in the state.

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“I believe what happened was a mistake on our part as managers,” Villines said. “We need to acknowledge and recognize -- and we do -- that in an economy this tough, where people are hurting in California this bad, this is not the right thing to do. It sends the wrong message to Californians who are frustrated, who are losing their jobs and losing their homes. It was bad timing.”

Villines said that because his staff will not get raises, he will take a 5% pay cut “so that I can make sure I’m in the trenches with my troops.”

In addition to his state salary of $116,000 a year, Villines receives more than $100,000 annually from a family trust that has real estate holdings.

Despite the revocation of the raises, some political observers said significant damage had been done to the campaign led by Villines, Bass and the governor for the May propositions intended to help balance the state budget.

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The measures, which include a spending cap that would also extend recently enacted tax increases for up to two years, were already facing a tough sell, according to Arnold Steinberg, a Republican political strategist not involved in the election.

The decision to give raises “potentially is the final nail in the coffin for the ballot measures,” Steinberg said.

Assemblywoman Noreen Evans (D-Santa Rosa) said she did not think the raise issue “is a winner or a loser” for the ballot measures. But Sen. Tony Strickland (R-Thousand Oaks), an opponent of the spending-cap measure, said “there will be damage.”

Jon Coupal, a leader of the campaign against the spending-cap measure, said Bass and Villines “did the right thing” in repealing the raises, “but it is a little hard to unring the bell. If they really know what was going on in the real world, they never would have considered the raises in the first place.”

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Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., also is suspicious that Bass did not rule out raises later this year.

“The implication of what the speaker said is that she will be open to the raises after the election,” he said.

For his part, Villines said raises for staffers on the Republican side of the aisle are off the table “indefinitely.” He said he started the process for providing raises for some members of his staff last year, before it was fully known how bad the state’s finances would be.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was pleased that the raises were revoked, spokeswoman Rachel Cameron said.

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“We believe they made the right decision,” Cameron said. “As California families and businesses are tightening their belts, the governor believes California government should do the same.”

In recent months, the state has delayed many personal income tax refunds and payments to vendors, required most government workers to take two unpaid furlough days a month and negotiated a contract with unionized workers that will cut their pay by 4.6%.

The governor signed a budget in February that raised sales and income taxes and vehicle license fees and made deep cuts in services, to plug a shortfall of $41 billion.

As part of those cuts, Bass said, the Assembly pared its operating budget by $15 million.

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patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com


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