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No pay cuts for California elected officials amid budget crisis prompted by coronavirus

Members of the California Assembly are among 132 elected state officials who won't take pay cuts amid the coronavirus crisis.
Members of the state Assembly, seen here in 2016, are among 132 elected state officials whose pay was maintained at the current level Thursday by the state Citizens Compensation Commission.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

While most state employees face the threat of 10% pay cuts due to a state budget deficit fueled by the coronavirus crisis, a citizens’ panel on Thursday decided not to cut the salaries of state lawmakers and other statewide elected officials.

But the decision came with an entreaty from Tom Dalzell, the chairman of the state Citizens Compensation Commission, who called on California’s 132 elected state officials to each consider taking less pay as the state contends with the economic upheaval stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic and the stay-at-home orders implemented to slow spread of the virus.

“I urge the legislators and the constitutional officers … to each seriously consider a voluntary surrender of some portion of their salary in recognition of the budgetary hardships and the hardships of many Californians, especially those who are unemployed,” Dalzell said during Thursday’s meeting.

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced earlier this month that he will seek a 10% reduction in the salaries of rank-and-file state workers as well as his own pay starting July 1 as part of a plan to address an expected $54.3-billion deficit for the fiscal year starting that day.

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Thursday’s vote to maintain salary levels for elected officials sent the wrong message, said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn.

“It’s a question of optics, that with all the pain being inflicted on individuals and small business, it’s unseemly that the highest paid legislators in America [until recently] aren’t sharing in the pain,” Coupal said after the decision.

As a result of the commission vote, California’s 120 legislators will see their base salaries remain at $114,877, which until recently was the highest base salary paid to lawmakers in any state in the country. New York bumped its lawmakers’ pay to $120,000 annually in January.

Although the commission did not reduce the governor’s annual salary of $209,747, he has indicated that he will voluntarily take a 10% reduction starting July 1.

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While other legislators were not immediately available Thursday for comment, it does not appear Senate Democrats will voluntarily reduce their salaries. When asked about Dalzell’s suggestion, Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) said in a statement Thursday that the Senate is focused on developing a plan that would avoid devastating cuts to important state programs.

“Voters put legislators’ compensation in the hands of the Citizens Compensation Commission. We continue to abide by their decisions,” Atkins said.

While Newsom’s office is negotiating with unions to reduce the pay of civil servants working for the state, the salaries of elected officials are set annually by the commission that was created under a ballot measure approved by voters in 1990.

The commission was not able to raise salaries Thursday because another ballot measure from 2009 prohibits salary increases when there are deficits, as there is now.

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All four members of the commission, who are appointed by the governor, said they recognize that the state is facing economic and budgetary difficulty.

Commissioner Laura Horrocks said during the panel’s teleconferenced meeting that she would support a reduction of pay but added: “We don’t know the long-term impacts of where we are going economically.”

Dalzell said the state’s financial picture is grim.

“We are facing a financial crisis that is certainly greater than the stock market problems of 2008,” Dalzell said. “There is uncertainty in budgets at every level of government.”

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However, he said that, because the Legislature has not met as frequently as it normally does due to the pandemic, lawmakers are getting less from the $206 per diem they receive for each day the Legislature is in session.

“They still have the cost of maintaining housing in Sacramento for the very little time they are here,” he said. “So they are already making a big sacrifice.”

Dalzell also said that the money saved from cutting salaries of legislators is insignificant in comparison with the overall state budget hole.

“I’m not interested in a meaningless, symbolic gesture,“ he said.

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The commission action Thursday also maintained the current salary levels for the lieutenant governor, attorney general, treasurer, controller, secretary of state, insurance commissioner, superintendent of public instruction and members of the Board of Equalization.

The commission cut elected officials’ pay by 18% in 2009 after the governor and Legislature furloughed state workers to avoid a budget deficit during the Great Recession.

That year, lawmakers challenged the legality of cutting their salaries mid-term, arguing the changes should apply only to those who take office the following term, but the state attorney general ruled against the legislators.

Legislative leaders signaled last week that they would accept any decision of the citizen panel.

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“Whatever the Citizens Compensation Commission decides is what the Assembly will abide by,” said Katie Talbot, a spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood).


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