California Legislature tries to block steep cut in pay and perks

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    California Legislature tries to block steep cut in pay and perks

    The attorney general is asked to determine whether an 18% pay reduction and car allowance cuts are illegal.

    Capitol managers say a citizens panel that decided the reductions exceeded its authority.

    By Patrick McGreevy
    November 6, 2009
    Reporting from Sacramento


    The state Legislature is quietly seeking to block a steep cut in lawmakers' salary and perks.

    Executives of the Assembly and Senate have asked the state attorney general to determine whether the scheduled 18% pay reduction and additional 18% cuts to living expenses and car allowances are illegal. The lowered benefits are due to kick in next month, while base pay is set to be slashed from $116,000 to $95,000, starting with lawmakers elected starting year.

    Senate Secretary Greg Schmidt, who co-signed the letter requesting the legal opinion, said the Legislature's top attorney has said the citizens commission that ordered the reductions lacked the power to cut the per diem and car allowances.

    "We want to make sure they are legal actions," Schmidt said. "If the compensation commission thinks the action is OK and the legislative counsel says it's not, we need to go to a third party."

    Charles Murray, the Los Angeles businessman who is chairman of the Citizens Compensation Commission, said the panel has a legal opinion from an attorney at UC Hastings College of Law that says the panel acted within its authority.

    Murray also cited a narrow legal opinion by the attorney general's office in June that indicated that the panel could not cut pay for sitting legislators but that it appears to have the power to do so for those elected in the future. Murray said the challenge by the Legislature could "backfire" for elected officials at a time when most state employees are being forced to take three unpaid furlough days each month and many taxpayers are suffering.

    "I don't think this is the right time to oppose the action of the Citizens Compensation Commission," Murray said.

    The challenge was approved by the office of Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles). A spokeswoman said that a separate state board sets per diem payments.

    "We respect the Citizens Compensation Commission, but they have to follow the Constitution," said spokeswoman Shannon Murphy. "Getting legal clarity about what they can truly do under the Constitution is absolutely appropriate, especially when their actions directly conflict with those of the state board that oversees issues involving per diem."

    A representative of Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) said the leader did not approve the challenge before it was filed by Schmidt and Jon Waldie, the chief administrative officer of the Assembly. "It's something they did on their own," said Nathan Barankin, a spokesman for Steinberg. Schmidt reports to Steinberg and Waldie to Bass.

    Barankin said Steinberg was not available for comment but will abide by whatever the attorney general finds.

    The letter from Schmidt and Waldie asks Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown to rule on whether the commission acted legally when it voted May 20 to impose the cuts. Its members, the letter said, "apparently lacked the authority to make a salary adjustment at that time based on the condition of the state budget." Murray countered that state officials had announced a budget shortfall before the commission took action.

    The pair also complained in their letter that a resolution the commission adopted regarding expenses focused on legislators to the exclusion of other elected state officials.

    "The fact that the resolution has been tailored in this fashion to single out the Legislature suggests an abuse of discretion on the part of the commission," the two executives wrote.

    In its final action, however, the panel did cut expenses for other elected officials.

    The letter also contends that "travel and living expenses for members of the Legislature are not addressed" in the section of the state Constitution that gives the commission its responsibilities.

    To bolster their argument, they sent a legal opinion from Legislative Counsel Diane F. Boyer Vine that says "the determination of per diem reimbursements for members of the Legislature is not a benefit within the jurisdiction of the commission."
     

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