Sacramento: Welcome to the Real World

A longtime political observer remarked to me recently that all politicians should be required to shop at Wal-Mart. This is neither an endorsement nor condemnation of the big box chain but simply an illustration of how most elected officials seem to be out of touch with the concerns of average folks who are struggling though a dismal economy in a high-tax state. Some readers will remember that at a town hall meeting debate in 1992 George H. W. Bush could not answer when asked the cost of a gallon of milk.

Thanks to the decision of the Citizens Compensation Commission to cut pay for legislators and constitutional officers by 5% beginning in December the Sacramento politicians may get a small taste of what many of their constituents are experiencing — declining earning power. Under the category of “poetic justice” this self-inflicted wound is due in large part to the mismanagement of the state by the political elite.

Assembly Speaker John Perez objected to the pay cut telling a reporter “We believe the commission’s cut is punitive and ignores the size and complexity of the job and the facts regarding comparable legislative bodies.” It’s ironic that he would mention “comparable legislative bodies.” Does he mean the other state legislatures? Perhaps the speaker does not know that pay for members of the California Legislature is and long has been the highest of all 50 states.

Ironically the Citizens Compensation Commission is a creation of the state Legislature. In the late 1980s a string of lawmakers were being charged with corruption — some of whom later went to prison — and this was helping to fuel the term limits movement. Then-Speaker Willie Brown and his cronies were looking for a way to improve their image and placed Proposition 112 on the ballot which was advertised as reform of the Legislature. It included a ban on honorariums for lawmakers — essentially the practice of overpaying a politician for giving a speech — and a commission to set salaries.

Passage of Proposition 112 pleased lawmakers because they no longer had to vote publicly to raise their own salaries which could become a campaign issue. Because the members of the so called “Citizens” Commission were appointed by the governor it was assumed that salary increases would find smooth sailing and for many years this was true. The Commission regularly ratcheted up pay and lawmakers continued to enjoy the good life. Annual salaries for Senators and Assembly Representatives ballooned from just over $40000 to nearly $120000.

However a chill went through the Legislature when in 2008 a Commission member asked for a legal opinion as to whether or not they had the ability to reduce salaries. After receiving an affirmative response the following year the Commission voted to reduce pay by 18% and this year a further 5% reduction was approved.

There is no need to worry that lawmakers will be forced to apply for California’s very generous welfare benefits. Their base pay will be a comfortable $90526 an amount that many in the private sector would welcome.

If legislators believe they should be paid based on performance they should review the facts. California has the second highest unemployment rate in the nation the lowest credit rating some of the highest taxes and they still have been unable to honestly balance the budget.

However if our highly paid politicians still believe they do not receive enough from taxpayers here is a suggestion. California income tax forms include a number of boxes that allow taxpayers to donate to “good causes.” Speaker Perez and his colleagues can add a box labeled “Higher Pay for Lawmakers.”

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.