Opinion: The Real Problem With High Pay for California Legislators

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The commission that governs compensation for elected officials may be about to cut the pay of state legislators by 5 percent. That would be in line with the pay cut Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed for state workers.

At first glance, you wouldn't feel sorry for California legislators.

They make $95,291 a year -- the highest salaries of any state lawmakers in the country by a healthy margin. The next highest are Pennsylvania's legislators at $79,613 and New York's lawmakers, at  $79,500 a year.

A 5 percent cut wouldn't disrupt their status as the nation's best paid state lawmakers. Why not give them an even bigger cut?

Because, strange as it sounds, California's legislators may be underpaid.

How could that possibly be? California asks far more of its legislators than any other state. Indeed, the fact that we ask so much of lawmakers -- too much, I'd argue -- is a big part of our problem.

California lawmakers simply represent far more people than their counterparts in other states. Three times more people in the state than in Texas, which would rank second in people per legislature. 

California legislators represent 10 times more people than the national average. Our assemblymen are paid 20 cents a constituent. It's a dime per constituent for state senators.

What's more, our lawmakers work longer and harder. Yes, it does seem like our representatives take recesses and too many foreign trips.

But the California legislature is a full-time body. It is a body that is forced to manage more that legislatures in other places.

That's because California has centralized in Sacramento -- through its constitution and court decisions and ballot initiatives -- responsibility for all kinds of fiscal decisions at the state level that in most other states are handled by local elected officials at the county or municipal or school district level.

Because other states are less centralized, being a legislator elsewhere is often a part-time seasonal job with little pay. Legislatures meet for 90 days and go home.

When you compare California legislative pay by the number of people represented and the number of days worked and the number of issues that are their responsibility, our lawmakers are among the lowest paid in the country.

If we want to keep this broken, centralized system, we should pay lawmakers more. If we want to cut their pay, fine--but let's do it as part of a fix of our governing system.

Let's return decisions about taxes and spending to local governments, and add more lawmakers so that each doesn't have to represent so many people.

Cutting their pay, and giving them less to do, could be part of a larger reform.

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Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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