Governor Schwarzenegger had the nerve to suggest that legislators take a pay cut as a symbolic gesture and to save the state some money. As he put it in his State of the State address on January 15, “if you call a taxi and the taxi doesn't show up, you don't have to pay the driver.”
In other words, the citizens of California should not have to pay our legislators for failing to do their job.
So how much cab fare are we talking about? Members of the Legislature receive from $116,000 to nearly $134,000 in annual salary, plus generous expense allowances and excellent benefits according to public records. The governor’s salary is more than $210,000, but Schwarzenegger takes neither salary nor expenses, which is laudable, but not surprising given his wealth and money-making ability once his term ends.
But our legislators have not embraced the governor’s suggestion that they take a pay cut in light of the poor job they have done. In fact, that story has died in the media – hence no further coverage of the Governator’s challenge to the legislative branch and the response of these public servants.
And why would anyone consider the issue relevant? We Californians constantly reduce the workload of our legislators, even as we raise their pay. As I noted in an earlier CAIVP commentary, our citizens already make many of the tough legislative decisions through our overwrought voter initiative process, which frequently puts out of the reach of politicians major funding issues such as education.
The whole idea of citizen-legislators – part-time and paid enough to cover expenses – has morphed into a full-time political class. Even term limits have not succeeded at sucking the security out of politics – it has instead allowed politician to move upward and onward to higher, or just different, political positions. Political office has become the ultimate government job. The success rate for incumbents ranges from around 80 percent throughout California and the nation, and the ability of incumbents to gerrymander their districts into permanent safe houses has magnified this problem.
And don’t get me started on the unethical electioneering practices that have made the marketing of candidates far more misleading than the marketing of laundry detergent. At least with products, there are watchdog agencies and powerful consumer groups with their eye on the problem. With politicians, we have good ol’ boys appointed by politicians keeping a close watch on their friends who also happen to be politicians.
So it really isn’t surprising that our California legislators aren’t jumping for joy at the thought of reducing their “raid the larder” approach to governing. This is, after all, their job – the way they make a living and feed their families. They are no different than teachers, factory workers or CalTrans employees. It’s just a job.
And isn’t that exactly the problem with turning politicians into a political class? Maybe we need more than just a salary reduction – maybe we need to redefine the role of lawmakers and return to the idea of citizen-politicians with other jobs to go back to. Then the work would have to get done more quickly, and accountability would be more closely monitored by fellow-citizens. So, governor, maybe you just didn’t ask for enough.