Bass cancels pay raises for Assembly staff

Assembly Speaker Karen Bass abruptly rescinded 5 percent pay increases for dozens of rank-and-file members of the Assembly staff, citing concerns the pay raises might jeopardize the measures on the May 19 ballot.

Bass, who is supporting Propositions 1A through 1F, said critics of the measures were using the April 1 raises to undermine support for the measures.

The raises were causing "a distraction," Bass said. "I did not want that to happen, so I decided to pre-empt that by canceling the raises."

Bass’ move comes in the wake of reports Tuesday that more than 130 Democratic and Republican Assembly staffers received 5 percent raises, even as other state workers were being forced to take pay cuts and furloughs.

Bass says the Assembly is still on track to reduce its overall operating budget, and has cut $38 billion from the operating budget “over the last two years.” And she said she was canceling the pay increases with regret.

“They (the staff) can run out of this building in a minute and get a much higher paying job," she said.

Assembly Republican Leader Mike Villines, R-Clovis, who also supports the ballot measures, said the raises were bad timing, and agreed with the speaker’s decision to repeal them.

Ultimately, the potential political fallout from the raises was too great. The increases come as the state grapples with an unprecedented budget deficit, and the messaging of the Yes on 1A through 1F campaign is contingent upon shared pain and legislative restraint.

On Tuesday, Bass defended the pay increases in an interview with Capitol Weekly.

“These are people who haven’t had a raise in a couple of years,” Bass said.  She said she was sensitive to the appearance of authorizing the pay increases in a time of austerity, but said, “I have a real concern about retaining staff. I’ve lost staff, especially to the Third House (lobbyists).”
In all, more than $550,000 in additional annual salary increases was granted to 136 employees of the Assembly — a number that includes 80 Democratic and 56 Republican staff. Bass said her senior staff was excluded from the most recent round of pay hikes, although several veteran staffers who earn more than $100,000 annually did receive increases. 

Bass, defending the pay increases, lamented that they might be taken out of context and used as ammunition in the fight against the May 19 ballot measures – measures that Bass is supporting.

“I think that some people can spin it and use it in an opportunistic fashion,” Bass said. “However, we cut our (Assembly) budget by $15 million. If I can find ways to reduce overall expenditures and give staff a merit raise at the same time, I think that’s another way to handle an economic crisis.”

But speaking to reporters Wednesday, Bass said the salary increases were canceled immediately, and that she would be meeting over the next few days to decide whether pay hikes "should be frozen all year."

The state Senate has had a freeze on pay increases since Jan. 14. A Jan. 16 memo from Senate secretary Greg Schmidt states, “All salaries of Senate employees are frozen until further notice, and no supplementary compensation in any form will be approved.”

Waldie said no such freeze was ever in effect in the Assembly, and that new pay increases are granted “all the time.”

The pay increase revelation came at a time when thousands of state workers have been forced to take unpaid furlough days and pay cuts of roughly 9.6 percent, part of Gov. Schwarzenegger’s goal to reduce state spending by 10 percent across the board.

Schwarzenegger put forward a proposal that would have forced the Legislature to cut 10 percent of its budget – about $43 million worth of cuts between March 2009 and June 2010. But that plan was killed by Democratic leaders in both houses, including Bass.

The Legislature’s total operating budget is about $242 million.

"We are a separate branch of government, and as long as we meet the savings goal, the same goal set out by the governor, we'll do it in the way we believe is best," Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said after the budget deal was reached.

Bass and Steinberg both vowed to cut their respective houses’ budgets.

The Assembly is currently considering a bill to freeze salaries for the highest-paid state employees. AB 53, by Assemblyman Anthony Portantino, D-La Canada Flintridge, would prohibit state employees whose annual base salary is over $150,000 from receiving a salary increase or overtime pay until January 2012.

Portantino’s bill cleared the Assembly PERS Committee on a 6-0 vote. It’s next hearing is April 19 in Assembly Appropriations.

The total payroll for the employees of the California Legislature is slightly more than $129.3 million, and the average pay for 2,054 legislative workers is about $63,000 a year, according to legislative data analyzed by Capitol Weekly.

The figures reflect a trend that has accelerated in recent years: Despite the differences in size between the two houses, the budgets of the 80-member Assembly and the 40-member Senate are coming closing together.

The Assembly has a payroll of about $66.8 million, while the Senate payroll is $62.5 million. The Assembly employs some 1,128 people, and the Senate staff is listed at 926 workers, according to figures supplied by the Rules Committees in each house.

The average pay for an employee in the Senate is about $67,388 per year. In the Assembly, it is just over $59,198 annually.

The median salary in the Senate, the point at which half the salaries are higher and the other half are lower, is $60,720. In the Assembly, the median salary is $51,312.

In the Senate, the average for individual salaries — $67,388 annually — is higher than the median family incomes for all but four of California's counties – Ventura ($75,157), Santa Clara ($74,335), Marin ($71,306) and San Mateo ($70,819).

About 775 people earn more than $40,000 annually in the Assembly, while 747 earn $40,000 or more in the Senate.

At the top end of the salary scales, 125 workers in the Assembly earn more than $100,000 a year. Of those, 19 earn more than $150,000. The highest paid Assembly staff member is Edwards at $190,008, followed by Christopher Woods, top consultant to the Assembly Democratic Caucus, who earns $186,756 a year.

In the Senate, the highest-paid employee is Schmidt, at $205,584, followed by Craig Cornett, chief assistant to Steinberg, at $183,480.

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