That sound you heard at the State Capitol last week was constitutional officers and state lawmakers running for cover.
“Gov. Gavin Newsom, California legislators and other state elected officials were approved to receive a 4.2% salary increase this year,” the Los Angeles Times reports.
There is no bigger political hot potato than pay raises for elected officials.
Currently, California governors are paid $209,747 per year. That will go up to $218,500 starting December 1. Rank-and-file state lawmakers are paid $114,877 plus per diem while the Legislature is in session. That will increase to $119,700 in January.
The pay raise was granted by the California Citizens Compensation Commission, which held its annual meeting to determine the salary of state elected officials for the coming year.
According to the commission website, “Proposition 112, passed by voters in June 1990, established the Commission to set the salaries and medical, dental, insurance and other similar benefits of Members of the Legislature and the State’s other elected officials.” Another voter-approved measure, Proposition 1F (2009) prevents the commission from granting pay raises when there is a budget deficit.
Even though legislators do not propose or approve the pay raises themselves, it is a huge political hit, typically generating the sort of big constituent and media backlash that you’re seeing today.
During the 2000s and early 2010s, the state faced several years of budget rollercoasters. Yet, the commission granted multiple pay raises during this period, even though lawmakers were often digging out from under multibillion dollar budget holes.
Working with lawmakers during that time, we were quick to emphasize that the Legislature routinely cut its operating budgets and left vacancies unfilled while the state was experiencing massive deficits – anything to change the subject. Many lawmakers – especially those who faced tough re-election fights, declined the pay raises.
During the Schwarzenegger years, when the commission was dominated by GOP appointees, the commission twice voted to cut their pay – even by a whopping 18 percent in 2009. Now the commission is dominated by Democratic appointees more sympathetic to pay increases. The history of recent legislative pay raises shows state elected official pay was boosted every year between 2013 and 2019, while no change last year.
This latest pay increase couldn’t come at a worse time for Gov. Newsom, who has faced harsh criticism recently over his lack of leadership as Cal-OSHA has issued multiple confusing and contradictory workplace mask policies. With the recall election on the horizon, the last thing Newsom wants is to be saddled with a pay raise he didn’t ask for.
According to Assembly records, three state lawmakers voluntarily reduced their pay during the Covid-19 pandemic as the state faced a massive deficit in 2020. Newsom also took a roughly 9 percent pay cut – corresponding with the pay cut faced by state workers – last year.
Pay raises symbolize everything that’s wrong with Sacramento. Even though state elected officials deserve to be paid a fair salary like everyone else, these pay raises are almost never justified in the public eye, even during good times. Take a pay raise, and many constituents will see you as someone who is out to fatten their pockets at taxpayer expense while many are struggling.
Even though we face a rosier budget scenario this year, expect to see Newsom and many more state elected officials to decline this pay raise. At the end of the day, a 4.2 percent raise isn’t worth the outpouring of constituent anger and negative press that they’ll receive in return.
Tim Anaya is the Pacific Research Institute’s senior director of communications and the Sacramento office.