Capitol Alert

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Do lawmakers deserve a raise?

With rising revenue elevating California above years of gaping budget gaps, a panel that sets elected officials' salaries seemed receptive Thursday to boosting salaries for member of the Legislature.

Members of the California Citizens Compensation Commission will not make a decision until they meet in June, after the state has put out more up-to-date budget numbers. But as California recovers from year of fiscal tumult, commission members said it may be time to contemplate higher salaries.

"If the fiscal situation in the state is improved and is stable, then we need to consider the possibility of raising compensation of legislators and for the constitutional officers," commission member Scott Somers said in an interview after the hearing.

The pay panel voted last year to give lawmakers a five percent raise, hiking their salary to $95,291 a year. That falls short of a full restoration to pre-recession levels, Dalzell said, noting that lawmakers accepted consecutive cuts of five percent and 18 percent.

"I think there are a couple pieces of data that leave room for action," Thomas Dalzell, the commission's chair, said after the hearing. "I think the fact that we are still 18 percent away from where they were five years ago, the salaries of boards of supervisors that we're told to look at and the fact that the increase almost certainly has no impact on the budget - all of that leaves room."

Giving lawmakers more money does not mean draining extra revenue out of the state's General Fund. Both the Senate and the Assembly operate under fixed budgets, so any additional money allocated to salary would have to be subtracted elsewhere. Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed 2014-2015 budget would not increase how much money the Legislature has at its disposal.

"We're sending a message with what we do," Dalzell said, "knowing that it does not have an impact one way or another on the budget."

Much of the debate on Thursday centered on the most accurate way to evaluate lawmaker salaries. People pointed to shortcomings with data comparing the income of California lawmakers to the paychecks received by other state lawmakers and by municipal officials in California.

For one thing, when voters imposed term limits on the California Legislature, they also nixed public pensions for state legislators. So while California lawmakers draw a higher salary than their counterparts in other state bodies, Somers said a thorough analysis needs to incorporate the value of public pensions elected officials draw in other states.

"Even though (California lawmakers) don't have pensions, when we're looking at actual compensation - we're not going to restore, clearly, everything that was taken away from them, but it is important to be aware of what other people get when we're looking at our lawmakers," Somers said.

Legislators in California also make significantly less money than public officials like county executive officers, city attorneys and city managers. Wilma Wallace, a member of the pay commission, distinguished between term-limited lawmakers and unelected public servants.

"I do see a distinction between someone who is on a professional career path, and I would put county and city managers in that category," she said, "as compared to many of our elected officials."


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