California bill targets companies with highly paid executives

Abigail Disney
Abigail Disney, granddaughter of Walt Disney Co. co-founder Roy Disney, supports the bill. She has has no formal role at the company and has been advocating for higher wages for its workers.
(Adam Beam / Associated Press)

California lawmakers will consider raising taxes on some of the nation’s largest companies, with the size of the tax increase depending on how much each company’s highest-paid executive makes compared to its employees.

The bigger the gap, the bigger the tax increase.

The bill by state Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) passed out of its first committee hearing Wednesday, keeping it alive ahead of a Jan. 31 deadline to pass the Senate.

The proposal would apply only to companies that post at least $10 million of taxable income from business conducted in California. That would apply to about 2,000 companies nationwide, including Burbank-based Walt Disney Co.

Heiress Abigail Disney, granddaughter of Roy Disney — the brother of Walt Disney and one of the company’s co-founders — supports the bill. She has no formal role at the company, and she has been advocating for higher wages for the company’s workers.

“At the happiest place on Earth, they are paid so poorly that they rely on food banks, sleep in cars or live so close to the bone that even a small problem could send them into a death spiral,” Abigail Disney told state lawmakers Wednesday.


Her comments about the company’s workers stem from a visit she made to some Disneyland employees at an off-site union office in Anaheim.

Disney Chief Executive Bob Iger received more than $65 million in compensation in 2018, a higher-than-usual figure because of a one-time stock award connected to the company’s acquisition of 21st Century Fox. That salary was more than 1,400 times the median pay of a Disney employee, according to a study from Equilar.

In 2018, shareholders voted to reject Iger’s pay package in a nonbinding vote. Last year, the company responded by cutting $13.5 million of Iger’s future potential earnings.

A spokesman for the Walt Disney Co. said the company committed to a minimum wage of $15 an hour, health insurance for a little as $6 a week, child-care subsidies and an initial investment of $150 million to fully pay for the college education of hourly workers.

“Disney has made significant investments to provide for the upward mobility of our employees,” the company said in a statement.

Many of the state’s business groups oppose Skinner’s proposed law, including the California Business Roundtable, which represents large companies. Roundtable President Rob Lapsley said the bill would keep companies from coming to the state.

“I’m not here today to defend CEO pay. What I am here today to do is to defend jobs,” he said. “Take the CEO pay out of it. What [the bill] is sending is a broader signal that the Legislature is intending to be able to regulate every aspect of free enterprise in this state.”

California would not be the first government in the United States to try this, but would be the the largest. In 2016, city officials in Portland, Ore., approved a 10% tax on publicly traded companies that pay their CEOs 100 to 250 times what they pay the average worker.

Some lawmakers signaled they want some changes before the bill comes for a vote in the Senate.

One question is whether the state should make money off the tax. Lawmakers could write the bill so it rewards companies that have smaller gaps between CEO salary and workers’ average pay.

As written, state officials estimate the legislation could bring in up to $4.1 billion. Skinner says it’s reasonable for the state to make money off the tax because the rising income inequality means more workers are relying on public assistance.

“California’s taxpayers are basically paying the cost for the services that employees then turn to because they don’t have a wage that can provide their families’ needs,” Skinner said.

State Sen. John Moorlach (R-Costa Mesa) questioned why the Legislature would seek to meddle with the salaries of big companies when athletic coaches at some of the state’s public universities make millions of dollars.

“Are we going to be looking at our own house?” Moorlach said.

Skinner said public employees in California “by and large ... have a very decent wage,” saying most of them do not face “the types of problems our low-wage workers are facing.”

Disney told lawmakers the issue was a problem of corporate culture “50 years in the making.”

“If your entire reputation as a company relies on the idea of its clean floors, you had better be willing to pay your workers enough to do the job well and with dignity,” Disney said. “Dignity is not a perk.”