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Since Jeff Denham was elected to the Senate in 2002, he has voluntarily cut his pay four times and usually told his constituents about it.

What he hasn’t told them about is the three raises he subsequently accepted.

For instance, last fall, Denham, who is facing a recall attempt, was one of the 21 lawmakers who turned down a $3,110-per-year raise that went into effect in December. But less than a month after declining the pay hike, the Atwater Republican sent a second letter to the state controller accepting a similar-sized raise granted 18 months earlier.

It’s not the first time Denham has declined one raise while accepting another.

“He gets the best of both worlds,” said Robert Stern, president of the government-watchdog Center for Governmental Studies. “He’s getting the good press and most of the pay.”

Denham has collected less than his full salary every year since he was elected in 2002, but in each of the last two years he has, within a month, turned down one raise, while accepting another.

“The first story after the pay hike indicates that he has turned down the hike. That’s great press for him. But he also doesn’t say at the same time that he has accepted a previous pay hike,” Stern said.

Denham said he looks at “each of the different raises as different raises” and that his salary is now “the raise that I was elected to” in 2006.

DenhamAs for why he turned down one pay hike while accepting another, Denham said, “I just declined to take this last pay raise because I think the timing is horrible, a huge deficit…right now I don’t feel like it’s the right thing to do.”

His salary is now $113,098 per year – below the $116,208 many of his colleagues earn.

The news comes as Denham faces a recall funded by the state Democratic Party and a campaign committee tied to Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata. Combined those committees have spent nearly $270,000 to qualify a recall of Denham ($227,000 from the party and $41,000 from the Perata-linked Voter Education and Registration Fund).

Democrats launched the recall last summer, during a 52-day budget standoff when Denham refused to vote for what he called an unbalanced budget. Denham never did vote for the budget.

In the months since, the state’s budget deficit has ballooned to $14.5 billion and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has called a special session to address the fiscal shortfall.

Roger Salazar, a spokesman for the Democratic Party, called Denham’s pay hike refusals and then acceptances “another example of Denham’s propensity for telling the voters he is going to do one thing and then doing another.”

“He did it with the budget,” Salazar said, explaining that Denham said he would support education but then voted against the budget. “Now he is playing a little hide and seek with his salary.”

Democrats must gather 31,084 valid signatures from district residents by Feb. 13 to qualify the recall. Salazar said the signature collecting is “progressing” and that the party plans to continue gathering signatures up to the deadline.

Here’s a timeline for Denham’s rejections, and subsequent acceptances, of pay hikes:

2002
Denham is elected to the state Senate and accepts a voluntary 5 percent pay cut. “At the time, that’s what my Republican caucus was saying, we needed to cut five percent across the board,” Denham said in an interview about why he slashed his own salary to $94,286.

2005
The independent citizens panel that sets salaries for lawmakers voted to approve a 12 percent raise, the first pay increase for legislators in seven years. Denham declines the raise. He tells the Bee in September 2005, "State employees and other Californians are facing tough times right now. We've seen state budget deficits over the last several years. The timing for a legislative pay increase isn't right."

As for fellow lawmakers who accepted the raise, he said, “That's something they'll have to live with. That's a decision they'll have to make. I don't want to be critical of my colleagues."

2006
The independent panel raises lawmakers’ salaries for the second year in a row, this time by 2 percent. Denham declines the most recent raise.

In a July newsletter to his constituents, Denham’s office reports, “Jeff is the lowest paid member of the Legislature. When he first took office in December 2002, he actually took a voluntary legislative pay cut of 5%. At that time, the state was facing a deficit of over $30 billion. He also rejected a 12% pay raise last year.”

In November, Denham wins reelection to the Senate with almost 60 percent of the vote. In December, he accepts the previous year’s 12 percent raise and rescinds his voluntary 5 percent reduction effective Jan. 1, 2007. His salary rises from $94,286 to $110,880, according to the state controller's office.

2007
On Nov. 29, Denham writes the state controller’s office to decline the latest 2.75 percent raise approved by the independent salary commission. Less than a month later, on Dec. 27, he again writes the controller’s office, accepting the 2 percent pay raise approved in 2006. His salary is currently $113,098. That is below the full $116,208 many of his colleagues earn.

Photo credit: Randall Benton, The Sacramento Bee, July 2007. Sen. Jeff Denham speaks to reporters during the summer's budget standoff


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