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Why Legislators Should Take a Pay Cut During Deficit

by Indy, published

Legislators who want to be true leaders should follow the example of Sen. Abel Maldonado and not only refuse pay raises any time the state's in a deficit, but also agree to cut their pay immediately.

Of all the demands from all the Republicans in all the California Legislature, this one sounds so imminently sensible that it should happen even if it doesn't make it into the final budget legislation, assuming the state some day reaches that point.

That's not proposed as a form of punishment, because workers don't face pay cuts for not doing the job. They get fired. Only voters can fire legislators, though, so any personnel changes will have to wait almost two years.

It's suggested as a way of for legislators to say, "Even though we've put the state through months of agony, we're not bad folks. We care. We're willing to take the same lumps millions of other furloughed, pay-frozen and laid off Californians are taking."

The amount of money saved from a 10 percent cut -- $936,000 a year -- borders on insignificant considering the $42 billion scope of the problem. But it's an amount that won't seem insignificant to thousands of state workers soon to receive layoff notices. The roughly $11,620 per legislator - party leaders are paid a bit more -- equals what a $21,000-a-year worker would draw on unemployment.

Sure, there will be the usual hemming and hawing about how the California Citizens Compensation Commission, not the Legislature, sets pay.

The commission, which came within one vote back in the summer of enacting a 10-percent cut, will in turn hem and haw about how it's not sure it has the legal authority to cut pay.

None of that matters because there actually a really simple way to make it happen.

All it takes is 120 people marching into Controller John Chiang's office -- you know, the guy whose furniture the Republicans like to gripe about all the time -- saying "pay me less" and signing a few papers.

Govs. Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger have done it. Sen. Jeff Denham, a Republican from Merced County, sort of does it, though he usually turns around and takes the raises later. A schools superintendent in a small Central Valley district did it recently, telling the school board to cut his pay.

It's happened in Utah and Michigan already, though Utah's is delayed a year and Michigan's is caught up in a legal question about judicial pay. It's being considered in Kentucky and Pennsylvania

In normal times, it's a move that would smack of populist politics. Except these are extraordinary times with extraordinary problems.

Senate President Darrell Steinberg didn't sound opposed to Maldonado's demand that future raises be banned in times of budgetary crises -- though he didn't come out and support it either, if you listen carefully.

"The one that sounds potentially doable, that sounds reasonable -- in fact good public policy -- is to not allow the Citizens Commission on legislative salaries to ever raise our salary in a time of a budget deficit," Steinberg told The Sacramento Bee. "That makes a lot of sense. I think it makes good sense."

If it makes sense during the next budget crisis, it makes sense now.

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