During the eight months that former Democratic state Sens. Leland Yee and Ronald Calderon were on suspension in 2014 while facing federal corruption charges, they each received more than $63,000 from taxpayers.
Their paychecks were made possible by state law, which does not allow the Legislature to withhold wages from lawmakers who have been suspended. Next month, Californians will have a chance to decide whether to change the law with Proposition 50, which would allow legislators to hold back pay from suspended colleagues.
"The ballot measure closes a technical, but important loophole in the law," said Darrell Steinberg, former president pro tem of the state Senate. "The Legislature should have authority to suspend members for cause without pay."
Opponents, including state Sen. Joel Anderson (R-San Diego), say the measure is unnecessary because the Legislature has the power to expel lawmakers, which permanently removes them without pay. The measure could be misused by the party in power, Anderson said, adding that suspending lawmakers for months also deprives their constituents of representation.
"Proposition 50 will only perpetuate the culture of corruption, stifle opposition to the political establishment and deny millions of Californians their voice in the state Capitol," he said.
Anderson was the lone vote against suspending Yee, Calderon and Democratic Sen. Roderick Wright in 2014, one of the worst years of scandal in the state Senate in decades. Wright was suspended at the same time as Yee and Calderon, after a jury found him guilty of felony perjury and voting fraud charges for lying about living in his Senate district. He resigned in September 2014, two months before his term was up.
Yee and Calderon were indicted in separate FBI stings and charged with providing official actions in exchange for payments. Both left office in November 2014 when their terms ended. Yee later pleaded guilty to felony racketeering. Calderon has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial this summer.
Republican blogger Jon Fleischman said the ballot measure falls short of addressing the problems raised by the three suspensions, including the need for an independent entity with the power to go after corrupt lawmakers.
"Prop. 50 is a meaningless, 'feel good' measure designed to make voters feel like they are dealing with corruption in the Legislature," Fleischman said.
But Helen Hutchison, president of the League of Women Voters of California, supports the measure.
"Lawmakers should be able to hold their own colleagues accountable if they breach the public's trust," Hutchison said, adding that the measure allows lawmakers "to do something short of expelling the member from the Legislature and something more than allowing that member to sit home and collect a taxpayer-funded paycheck."
Proposition 50 would amend the state Constitution to require a two-thirds vote of the Senate or Assembly in order to suspend a state legislator in that house. The Senate or Assembly could eliminate that legislator's salary and benefits during the suspension.
Currently, suspensions are possible with a majority vote. By increasing the required vote to a supermajority, the ballot measure provides added protection against abuse, Hutchison said.
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