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Pay cuts for state legislators challenged again

December 7, 2010 |  5:19 pm

State legislators are making yet another attempt to get back salary and benefits that were cut by an independent commission last year.

Assemblyman Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) has filed a claim against the state on behalf of all state legislators alleging that the 18% cut in pay and benefits was illegal. The claim, filed with the California Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board, could result in taxpayers reimbursing elected officials for millions of dollars in lost pay and benefits.

Not all lawmakers are pleased with the challenge.

"This is not the time to try to claw back missed compensation from previous employment," said Sen. Sam Blakeslee (R-San Luis Obispo). Blakeslee moved from the Assembly to the Senate after a special election this summer.  "If we’re going to earn back the respect of the public, we need to respect the decision of the Citizens Compensation Commission whether we agree with it or not."

The challenge comes as lawmakers already face dismal public approval ratings amid growing frustrations with how Sacramento has handled the state’s finances. The pay cuts were popular with voters, and an earlier legal attempt to restore the salaries was rebuffed by Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown.

Cedillo filed the latest claim as a first step toward a possible lawsuit that would seek to repeal the salary and benefit cuts and limit future decreases. It could also be settled if the state agrees to reimburse the elected officials.

"It seems like a waste of taxpayer money," responded Chuck Murray, chairman of the California Citizens Compensation Commission, which was created by voters in 1990 to set the salaries of elected officials.

Murray said his panel’s decision to cut salaries and benefits "was the right thing to do. ... It was a sharing of the burden which all other state employees had to bear when their pay was cut."

Cedillo, who was just elected to the Assembly after being termed out of the Senate, argues that the commission lacks the authority to reduce salaries and benefits for legislators in the middle of their terms. "We have a commission that apparently thinks they can do this. We don’t think that they can," said Robin Johansen, an attorney for Cedillo.

The pay cut reduced legislators' salaries from $116,208 to $95,291 effective Dec. 7, 2009.

"The commission had no authority to reduce per diem, automobile and other allowances for members of the Legislature because that authority is vested either in the Legislature itself or in other agencies," said the claim, dated Nov. 15 and released Tuesday by state officials.

A few lawmakers were not affected because they filled vacancies that existed at the time of the cuts. But if all 120 legislators were reimbursed for just the 18% pay cut, that could cost taxpayers more than $2.5 million.

The legal challenge would also affect reductions in the salaries approved last year for statewide elected officials including the governor, although Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger does not accept his $173,900 salary.

Last year, representatives of the Legislature filed a legal challenge on some of the same grounds with Brown, but his office responded that Murray’s panel had the power to cut officeholders' compensation  without waiting until after the next election.

The state claims board, which has paid out millions of dollars to settle other claims that people were injured by the state, is made up of the controller and two people appointed by the governor.

Murray said the board should reject Cedillo’s claim. "As far as I’m concerned, we had a very sound basis to do what we did," he said.

-- Patrick McGreevy

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