Lawmakers get hike as state faces deep cuts

While 240,000 state employees are facing possible job cuts and mandatory work furloughs, Capitol lawmakers have received a nice little raise.

The increased compensation for California’s 120 legislators comes in the form of $3 more per day for living expenses that each lawmaker receives tax-free. Lawmakers now receive $173 in so-called per diem compensation – money that is not subject to state or federal income taxes.

The boost comes at the same time that state employees face cuts. The governor issued an executive order earlier forcing unpaid furloughs of two days per month to cut costs. The move followed orders to lay off thousands of state employees.

The administration’s actions already have been challenged in court. Two groups, the 13,000-member Professional Engineers in California Government and the California Association of Professional Scientists are trying to block the executive order in Sacramento Superior Court. No hearing has yet been set.

“We’re still waiting to see what happens,” said Lisa Marie Burcar, a spokeswoman for the professional engineers.
Service Employees International Union Local 1000 has also challenged the governor. The 95,000-member group, the largest single bargaining unit of state employees, has filed a complaint with the Public Employee Relations Board. SEIU contends the administration issued the order without first attempting to negotiate.

“The law requires the governor to negotiate these issues prior to implementation,” said Local 1000 President Yvonne Walker. “He can’t simply declare an emergency and then decide that empowers him to break the law.”

The union also condends that the logistics for the potential layoffs and furloughs are not yet in place.
“Incredibly, neither the governor, nor the Department of Personnel Administration, nor the affected state agencies have any idea how they are going to implement the latest furlough or layoff plans.”

The administration believes those and other cuts are necessary to help balance the state’s books. The state faces an estimated $40 billion shortage through the end of June 2010.

Not all lawmakers take per diem, but most do. A recent report by the Associated Press indicated lawmakers have cumulatively taken more than $127,000 in per diem compensation since the beginning of November. That’s an average of more than $1,000 per lawmaker and occurred after lawmakers and the governor wrangled fruitlessly for months over the state budget impasse.

Normally, Legislators would not receive per diem since the legislative session officially ended in September. The new session is not set to begin officially until January. But Schwarzenegger has kept the Legislature in special session since mid November to try to resolve the state’s budget problem.

Because the legislature is in special session, lawmakers have received the money throughout December, even though they have been unable to reach any solutions to help the state out of its current cash crunch and budget hole.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has essentially stopped negotiating with Republican lawmakers, focusing on hammering out an economic stimulus package and a spending cut plan with Democratic leaders. Schwarzenegger had held regular video conferences with Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, and Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, from his vacation home in Idaho.

Democrats put forward a budget proposal that included a net tax increase of 13 cents per gallon of gas, and a temporary increase in the state sales tax. Democrats used budget technicalities to argue the tax package was not subject to the two-thirds vote requirement, a contention that was vehemently opposed by Republican lawmakers.

Schwarzenegger has said he would veto the Democrats plan, but not because of the revenue increases. Schwarzenegger has said Democrats need to do more to stimulate the economy – preferably through streamlining environmental regulations on infrastructure projects – and propose deeper spending cuts to education and social services.

Schwarznegger and his fiscal team are preparing a January budget that may be as much as $40 billion out of whack – a spending plan one adviser said would be, “the most draconian budget you’ve ever seen.”

SEIU urged the governor and Legislature to lobby heavily for federal aid for California, recover uncollected sales use and income taxes identified by the union and increase the tax on alcohol for the first time in 20 years. The union also called for layoffs “of all private contractors working for the state before cutting state-employee jobs.”

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