Republican legislators in California are richer than Democratic ones—especially on the Assembly side, according to the financial disclosure forms filed with the Fair Political Practices Commission.
Determining a legislator’s wealth from the paperwork is an imperfect science. The Form 700—also known as a “Statement of Economic Interests,” or SEI—that each state elected official files every two years is not a precise description of wealth. Assets are listed broadly via checked boxes stating “$10,001-$100,000,” or “$100,001-$1,000,000” Listing a personal home is optional, as is saying how much is still owed on it.
Still, when these assets are added up, clear trends emerge. Seventeen Republican legislators have assets of at least $1 million. This includes six out of 15 Senators and 11 out of 30 Assembly members. On the Democratic side, there are only nine clear millionaires—four out of 24 Senators, and five out of 50 Assembly members.
More Republicans listed large stock holdings, though several legislators on both sides listed ownership of successful businesses. Some the Democrats made the millionaires list mainly by owning houses in expensive areas.
According to his SEI, Senator Abel Maldonado, R-Santa Maria is worth several million dollars via a variety of family businesses. These include Agro-Jal Farming Enterprises Inc., Agro-Jal Cooling Inc., and Tri-M Rental Group. Maldonado has repeatedly turned down legislative pay increases. He currently makes $99,240 a year, $15,063 less than the standard pay for a California Senator.
Maldonado has also been in the news lately as the 27th and final Senate vote needed to end the state’s seven month-long budget impasse on Feb. 19. He extracted several concessions for his vote, including an initiative that will go on a 2010 ballot that would establish an open primary system and one on the May 19 ballot that would deny any legislative pay increases during deficit years. His initial request was for an initiative that would deny legislative pay altogether when the budget was late, but Democratic leaders rejected that proposal.
But Maldonado said the frequent talk of his wealth is overblown. He doesn’t take a salary from any of the companies, he said, living off of his Senate salary and staying at an $80 a night hotel in Natomas when he’s in Sacramento—all while giving up at least $40,000 in income over the last three years that pay increases would have brought him. All of the businesses have significant loans and liabilities, he said.
“I live off my salary, and I think my credit cards prove it,” Maldonado said. “I’ve had to tighten my belt. The notion that ‘He can put this bill out because he doesn’t need the money’ is not consistently with the facts.
Assembly Budget chair Noreen Evans said that she had an issue when any measure that would influence legislators to vote a certain way in order to protect their own pocketbooks.
“We have laws that prohibit that,” Evans said. “To actually write that into the law I think is inviting poor decision-making.”
The real problems, she said, are structural—particularly the two-thirds vote requirement. Docking pay under the current system, she said, is “a little like a teacher telling Jimmy, ‘you’re going to get a bad grade if Johnny doesn’t do well on his test.”
Another proposal came in bill form last week from Assembly Majority Leader Alberto Torrico, D-Fremont. His AB 1411 would permanently deny legislators the $173 in living expenses they’re normally paid for each day in the Capitol each day the budget is late. Legislators typically make about $30,000 a year from these per diem payment. This means that had AB 1411 been law during the 2008-09 budget crisis, legislators would have been out about $18,000. The bill would also outlaw campaign fundraising after June 15 unless there is a state budget.
Torrico’s AB 1412 would prevent legislators from taking any gift from lobbyists or companies who employ them. According to current FPPC rules, a lobbying firm can give gifts costing up to $10 per month to each legislator, while lobbyist employers are limited to $420 per legislator annually.
Torrico took what appears to be about an average number of gifts in the last session, according to his SEI. The most expensive was $385 in tickets to Universal Studios in March of last year. Torrico said that neither he or any legislator he knows of has ever been influenced by such a gift. The bill, he said, was inspired instead by the appearance of conflict this might create in voters’ minds. With that in mind, he made the following pledge.
“From January first of this year forward, I’m not going to take another gift while I hold elected office for the rest of my career,” Torrico said.
He said the bill was meant to reassure voters, without disproportionately affecting one party. Many budget negotiations consist of the so-called “Big Five”—the governor and the four legislative leaders, meaning that other legislators often don’t even need to be in town.
“It’s undeniable that the public has lost its faith in government in California,” Torrico said. He added, “Among Democrats, almost none of us are wealthy. Almost none of us can afford to go without one month’s salary.”
Torrico’s words were backed up by the SEIs. Of the 16 legislators who list no assets outside of their state salaries, 13 are Democrats. To put that another way, less than 7 percent of Republicans have no significant other assets, while nearly 18 percent of Democrats are in this boat. Twenty-seven legislators list less than $100,000 in outside assets. Of these, 20 are Democrats (27 percent of the Caucus) while only seven are Republicans (16 percent).
Being in top leadership did not correspond to wealth. Assembly Republican leader Mike Villines, R-Clovis, was the exception, listing at least $500,000 in assets. Both Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, and Senate Republican leader Dennis Hollingsworth, R-Murrieta, were in the middle of the pack. Speaker Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, listed no outside assets. She did have the longest list of gifts received of any legislator—but most of these appeared to be floral arrangements received about the time she became Speaker last May.
Still, with most legislators making at least $113,000 a year, plus per diem, they’re not likely to draw much sympathy from voters. Over the years, several legislators have foregone pay increases, at least temporarily—and often issued press releases letting people know about it.
A growing number of state legislators appear to be declining state cars in the wake of the budget crisis—particularly the better off ones. A half dozen Assemblymembers of each party forego state cars, including SEI millionaires Jean Fuller, R-Bakersfield, Diane Harkey, R-Dana Point, and Roger Niello, R-Sacramento, who owns a car dearlership.
The list also includes two Democratic senators—Carol Liu, D-Pasadena, and Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles—and three GOP senators—Dave Cox, R-Fair Oaks, Tony Strickland, R-Camarillo, and Mark Wyland, R-Escondido. Cox, Liu and Wyland all made the Senate’s millionaires list. Senator Lou Correa, D-Santa Ana, has the cheapest Senate car, a used 2004 Prius listed at $9,970; Correa lists at least $500,000 in wealth in his SEI.
Another Senator with assets over $1 million is Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), who owns a sign-making business in San Francisco. He took a state car, a 2009 Toyota Camry hybrid, but paid the $32,000
cost himself. Leno said that he didn’t take a state car during deficit years while he was in the Assembly, but chose his current arrangement due to the convenient servicing offered by the state.
“These are very personal decisions,” Leno said. “I don’t have dependent children or parents. We’re all in our own person situations. I wouldn’t suggest what I’m doing for anyone else.”