California lawmakers, officials face 18% pay cut

California’s Legislature went to state Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown recently seeking relief from a future pay cut and on Thursday received an unwelcome surprise: An 18% reduction for lawmakers and other elected state officials can begin next month instead of a year from now.

The move backfired after the Legislature protested -- the state’s dire financial straits notwithstanding -- that a pay cut scheduled to follow next year’s election was illegal. The state’s independent pay board had voted in May to trim salaries for those elected next year and beyond, and lawmakers asked Brown for an opinion.

He responded that the panel had the power to cut officeholders’ compensation now, without waiting until after the next election.

The chairman of the Citizens Compensation Commission immediately asked the state controller to slash the affected salaries, which include Brown’s, next month.

“We’re broke,” said Chairman Charles Murray. “This cut needs to happen now. It’s the right thing to do.”

A spokeswoman for the state controller’s office, which was scrambling to make sure the necessary technical switch could be done in time, said it planned to reduce lawmakers’ base salary from $116,208 to $95,291 as of Dec. 7.

The governor’s annual pay will go from $212,179 to $173,987, although Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger does not accept a salary. The lieutenant governor’s pay will drop from $159,134 to $130,490, and Brown will earn $151,127 instead of $184,301.

The sped-up pay cut will hurt Brown’s pocketbook, but it could help his political career. Brown is considered the Democratic front-runner in the upcoming gubernatorial campaign, even though he has yet to officially enter the race. Approval ratings for Sacramento politicians are dismal. Cutting their pay has obvious populist appeal.

The cuts also will apply to the state controller, treasurer, secretary of state, insurance commissioner, superintendent of public instruction and Board of Equalization members. The total yearly savings will be $2.9 million.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), whose base salary would go from $133,639 to $109,584 (although he has already taken a voluntary 5% cut), refused to comment. His spokeswoman referred calls to Senate Secretary Greg Schmidt.

“I don’t know how we will proceed yet,” Schmidt said. “There are multiple opinions on these matters. . . . It may end up decided by a court.”

He said senators will probably meet to discuss the issue early next month.

Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) declined to be interviewed on Brown’s opinion. Spokeswoman Shannon Murphy said in a statement that Bass would review it.

“We will obviously follow the law and the Constitution -- as every state agency has the duty to do, including the compensation commission,” Murphy said.

When the pay commission voted on the cuts in May, its members were advised by a state personnel attorney that the reduction could apply only to those elected starting next year. Schmidt and the chief administrative officer of the state Assembly, Jon Waldie, sent a letter to Brown, approved by Bass’ staff, requesting an opinion on the matter.

On Thursday, Brown said the state Constitution allows the seven-member compensation commission, which is appointed by the governor, to reduce the salaries of legislators and other elected officials in the middle of their terms.

Brown cited California voters’ 1990 approval of Proposition 112, which requires the commission to “adjust the annual salaries of state officers” each year.

“Any other interpretation would require assuming against all evidence that the voters in 1990 intended mid-term annual adjustments to only go up and never down, even in the face of a faltering economy and huge budget deficits,” Brown wrote to legislative leaders.

His opinion is an informal one that would nonetheless carry weight in a court, said Brown spokeswoman Christine Gasparac.

It did not address a legislative challenge to another cut the commission approved: an 18% reduction in legislators’ per diem and car allowances, also set to begin next month.

Those matters are more complicated, according to Gasparac, who said Brown’s office may issue a future opinion addressing them.