State Pols May Soon Feel the Pay Pinch

State's elected leaders are bracing for another salary cut

Grappling with a $16 billion shortfall, California's elected leaders are bracing for more bad budgetary news, this time of a more personal nature.

An obscure state panel called the Citizens Compensation Commission is meeting next week in Sacramento, and is showing signs of interest in another pay cut that would affect the governor on down to rank-and-file legislators.

It wasn't always this way. For years, the commission--shielded from public pressure--routinely raised the pay of California's elected leaders.

Between 1990 and 2007, pay levels roughly tripled, making public service a lucrative thing.

It was one of then-Speaker Willie Brown's master strokes. In 1990, he shepherded voter approval of Proposition 112, which took pay increases out of the hands of the legislature.

Raising one's own pay is an inherent act of self-interest, so voters decided to hand it over to a new commission appointed by the governor. But at least lawmakers had to face political consequences if they raised their pay.

The commission didn't. Without having to worry about the wrath of voters, the group steadily handed out raises. In 1990, lawmakers made $40,816. By 2007, it was up to $116,208. In 1990, the governor was paid $85,000. In 2007, it was $212,179.

It was a steady climb up, much to the anguish of taxpayer groups. And then came the recession. In 2009, lawmakers saw their pay slashed by 18 percent -- to $95,291.

The panel also eliminated lawmaker vehicles, replacing them with a $300 monthly allowance.

Now, with the governor seeking to cut state work pay by five percent, the commission may seek to apply that same cut to elected leaders.

It's a sharp turnaround from the pattern of steady raises, and it's prompted legitimate concern that the salaries will limit candidates only to those who are personally wealthy.

But after years of generosity, economic uncertainties have shown lawmakers that this commission has developed some sharp teeth.

For years, politicians accepted raises and said, "it's the commission's responsibility."

That dodge holds equally true for the bite they may be facing.

Kevin Riggs is an Emmy-winning former TV journalist in Sacramento. He is currently Senior Vice President at Randle Communications.

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