California Lawmakers Get 5.3% Raise

California State Capitol
California State Capitol
SACRAMENTO – California’s lawmakers on Monday got their first raise since the start of the recent recession, though some legislators refused the increase.

The raises come as California’s fiscal picture has improved after years of pain. The state’s independent legislative analyst’s office reported last month that at the end of the current fiscal year in June, the state will have a $2.4 billion reserve, more than double the $1.1 billion previously estimated. The state is also expected to send $3.1 billion more to its schools.

The 5.3% raises were instituted by the state’s Citizens Compensation Commission, which approves salary increases and cuts for statewide officeholders and legislators. The increase means most legislators will see their base pay rise to $95,291 from $90,526. Lawmakers also saw a per-diem increase for lodging and expenses to $163.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s pay will rise to $173,987 from $165,288, placing him among the highest-paid governors in the country, according to the Council of State Governments, a nonpartisan network of state leaders. Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris’s pay goes to $151,127 from $143,571, while Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom‘s salary rises to $130,490 from $123,965.

Karl Kurtz, a political scientist with the National Conference of State Legislatures, said the pay rise was in line with inflation and that the California legislature was among the busiest in the nation. California Senate districts represent about 900,000 people each—larger than typical congressional districts.

“You just have enormous constituent demands when you have districts that size, and providing constituent services is part of the job,” said Mr. Kurtz, whose bipartisan organization provides ideas and support for state governments.

Through collective bargaining, state workers are set to receive a 2% pay increase beginning next summer, contingent on the state’s finances.

In 2009, the Compensation Commission cut lawmakers’ salaries by 18%, and reduced by 18% the state’s contributions for health and other insurance benefits. Auto allowance and per-diem allowances were also cut. In 2011, legislators lost their cars and gas cards, and were given a $300 monthly allowance instead. The commission cut salaries an additional 5% last year.

Eleven state legislators—seven in the Assembly and four in the State Senate—declined to accept the increase, which will cost the state about $577,000 annually, according to the state controller’s office.

“I did it because I don’t believe the legislature has done enough to get control of spending,” said State Sen. Mimi Walters, a Republican from Irvine.

Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, a Republican from Twin Peaks in Southern California who has announced a campaign for governor on a platform of fiscal conservatism, said it was “unconscionable” for the governor and lawmakers to take a raise.

“Californians are still struggling, yet the Legislature is accepting what is equivalent to a financial pat on the back, while they’ve done absolutely nothing to improve the economy,” he said.

Democratic Assemblyman Ken Cooley of Rancho Cordova, a city near the state capital of Sacramento, said he could afford to turn down the increase, noting his children were out of college.

“We need a legislature where all 120 members are in a place where they feel they can focus on that public work and not worry about their finances,” he said. “I do not begrudge my colleagues who have kids in college or have that bill looming in the future.”

Mr. Brown, State Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Assembly Speaker John A. Perez said in statements that they were accepting the commission’s decision and their pay raises.

California legislators are paid the most in the country based on salary, though comparisons of total compensation are tricky because different states include different perks and reimbursement systems. Pennsylvania legislators, for example, get a base salary of $83,801 and Illinois lawmakers $67,836. New Hampshire has the lowest pay, with lawmakers getting only $100 a year, according to the National Council of State Legislatures.