Compensation Commission to look at legislator benefits

The Commission that cut salaries of state elected officials last week will meet on June 19 to discuss doing the same to their benefit packages.

The California Citizens Compensation Commission will gather in Sacramento that day to hear a presentation on benefits and then vote on possible changes, according to chairman Charles Murray.

“We have a job to do and we’re going to do it,” Murray said. “We’re not on a witch-hunt, we’re just trying to do what’s right.”
The board has sought a legal opinion from the legal staff at the Department of Personnel Administration (DPA) over which benefits they have control over. The best-known benefit, per diem, legislators receive is definitely out of their control. This is the $40,000 or so a year allowance given to legislators to allow them to travel and stay in Sacramento for their jobs.

Murray said they clearly control elected officials’ health and other insurance benefits. The DPA provides the board with an annual report on the salary and insurance benefits provided to elected officials. Two years ago, Murray said, he asked the DPA to do a report comparing compensation packages of California elected officials to those in other states. A spokesperson for DPA said they have not had the budget to complete this study, but “we’re doing our best.”

Murray said that no one seems to actually know all of the benefits that legislators and others are given, or what they add up to.
“That’s what we are trying to ascertain right now, what is a benefit, a perk or a job requirement,” he said.

When asked which benefits the board is likely to cut, Murray cited car-related expenses. For instance, he said, one legislator charged $12,000 in car repairs or their state car last year. He also said they’re likely to take aim at legislators’ gas allowances.

“Every leg is given a gas credit card, and as I understand, there is no accounting for it,” Murray said. “They have unlimited use of gasoline. Stuff like that.”

At last week’s meeting, board member Scott Somers was charged with coming up with a best estimate for the full benefit package offered to elected officials. Somers holds a seat on the board reserved for a “compensation expert.” He is currently a managing partner in the Windale Group, a staffing and consulting company, and has three decades of experience in the corporate world.  

These totals, Murray said, will then be compared with that of executives or others in the private sector making similar salaries. He said that it is highly likely that the Commission will order cuts on June 19. If they wait past July 1, he said, they will have to wait until the 2010-11 fiscal year to make any cuts.

The meeting will come almost exactly one month after the Commission slashed legislative salaries by $21,000. Other state elected officials, from the Governor on down, also took an 18% pay cut.

The change will save $2.5 million annually in legislative salaries, but will not go into effect for current elected terms, due to the way the law is written. In other words, a legislator who is elected or reelected next year would make the lower salary starting at the end of next year. So will all the statewide elected offices, such as the new governor, because those jobs all face elections next year. However, a senator elected in 2008 could continue making a higher salary until 2012.

Murry said they’re currently trying to find out if the same rule applies to benefits and perks. If not, he said, some or all of the cuts could be immediate. A spokesperson from the DPA confirmed that their legal staff is looking into the question.

Jon Waldie, the chief administrative officer for the Assembly Rules Committee, said that he is awaiting a call from DPA lawyers.
“They haven’t contacted us to say what they want to look at or what they feel they legally can look at,” Waldie said. “The constitution limits their scope.”

But Waldie said that according to his reading of the rules, the board determines elected officials compensation on a term-by-term basis. In other words, he said, if they have control over benefits, any changes would be subject to the same delays.
“If they’re allowed to look at those things, and I don’t know if they are…then my assumption is it will be the same,” Waldie said.

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