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State panel denies request to restore higher pay for legislators; Assemblyman Cedillo prepared to sue

January 20, 2011 | 11:28 am

A state panel on Thursday rejected a request by Assemblyman Gilbert Cedillo to overturn cuts in pay and benefits for state elected officials, so the lawmaker said he is prepared to take his case to court.

The Democratic lawmaker from Los Angeles had filed a claim alleging that a separate state commission acted illegally in 2009 when it cut the pay and benefits of legislators and other state officials by 18%.

Cedillo asked for the salary levels to be restored, a request that could have resulted in elected officials receiving millions of dollars in back pay.

His request was rejected Thursday by the state Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board, which agreed that the legal issues involved are so complex that they are better suited for a court process.

Cedillo said he expected the claim to be denied and that, after consulting with his attorney, he likely will file a lawsuit to compel the state to restore his compensation to $116,208, two years after it was reduced to $95,291 by the governor-appointed California Citizens Compensation Commission.

"It's important to move forward, to protect the balance of power for the people of California,'' Cedillo said, when asked if he would sue. "I am prepared to do that.''

"I  recognize that the [claims] are unpopular but I really believe they are in the best interests of the state."

Cedillo filed the claim on behalf of all of the state’s elected officials whose pay was cut in the middle of their terms. He argued that state law allows the reduction of salary for elected officials to apply only at the beginning of their terms. He also asserted that the pay cuts were an attempt to pressure lawmakers to support budget proposals by the former governor.

The state claims board on Thursday punted the issue without discussion after its staff noted in a written response to Cedillo that taking it into the courts would allow a more thoughtful and detailed analysis, including testimony by expert witnesses, than the panel is set up to engage in.

"Based on its review of your claim, board staff believes that the court system is the appropriate means for resolution of these claims, because the issues presented are complex and outside the scope of analysis and interpretation typically undertaken by this board," the written response said, adding "rejection of your claim will allow you to initiate litigation should you wish to pursue this matter further."

Los Angeles businessman Charles F. Murray, who is chairman of the California Citizens Compensation Commission, denied that the pay cuts were influenced by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and said the panel acted properly to make sure elected officials share the burden of spending reductions imposed on most other state workers.

Asked about a possible court challenge, Murray said, "The commission plans to vigorously defend our position.''

Jerry Brown, when he was the state attorney general before being elected as governor, had issued an opinion in 2009 that said the commission acted properly.

Cedillo’s decision to pursue the issue in court was met with derision by Lewis Uhler, president of the California-based National Tax Limitation Committee.

"He is making himself look foolish," Uhler said. "When the governor is trying to make ends meet and cutting his own staff and trying to economize, to have any legislator complain about his pay is just an outrage."

Cedillo said he enjoys widespread support from legislative colleagues, although they have not rallied publicly to his side.

"I know that there are a few who don’t agree with this politically, but many on both sides of the aisle have individually and privately thanked me," Cedillo said.

-- Patrick McGreevy in Sacramento