State leaders’ pay should be cut

A little-known California commission with surprising powers jumped into the headlines this week when two members called for a written legal analysis of how to properly cut the pay of the state’s top elected officials — currently the highest-paid in the nation.

The attorney for the California Citizens Compensation Commission, who also serves as chief counsel of the Department of Personnel Administration, said there was no question that the state Constitution empowers a majority vote of the seven commissioners to raise, lower or freeze lawmakers’ salaries. The only open question would be exactly how to do this for the first time.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s latest warning is that the fiscal 2008-09 California budget deficit will be at least $10 billion. All state agencies have been directed to prepare for 10 percent cuts and the public is facing drastic reductions in basic programs and services. All this makes the idea of pay cuts for California’s legislators and statewide officeholders seem stunningly appropriate.

Merit pay for public school teachers has been a heated issue for years, and public ire noticeably rises when corporate CEOs give themselves huge raises while their companies bleed money. Why shouldn’t some kind of performance-based compensation also be a fitting incentive for our elected officials to get down to business? Aren’t they the leaders who are supposed to pass balanced budgets on time and prevent killer deficits from taking shape?

Informal comments from the compensation commissioners during their brief Tuesday meeting suggested that at least a majority now favors a pay freeze this year.

But a pay cut would send a much stronger and more dramatic message, as well as being the fairest way for those at the top to share in the widespread pain. Our leaders should set a good example for once, especially now as new contracts for 19 of the state’s 21 employee associations come up for negotiation June 30.

The California Citizens Compensation Commission was created by a 1990 voter initiative to set pay and benefit levels for the eight statewide elected officials, four members of the tax-collecting Board of Equalization and the 120 state legislators. It froze all salaries during the 2001-04 economic slump, but began handing out double-digit raises in the past few years.

California legislators, who have already received 14 percent increases since 2005, got another 2.75 percent raise last year as revenues were starting to dry up. They now earn $133,639 annually, plus numerous enviable per diem benefits.

The compensation commission has discussed pay cuts during prior downturns, but never took any action. Now the commissioners will meet again in late May or early June to consider accepting their attorney’s recommended process for a legal pay cut. We know what our vote would be.

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