Tupac said it best: California knows how to party. We’ve got beaches, wineries, ski resorts, and all sorts of delicious fruit. Our movies have the biggest stars and the loudest explosions. We live large, so it’s no wonder our state legislators are the highest paid in the nation, according to a recent report in The Sacramento Bee. With an average salary of $95,291, our Assembly members and senators make $13-grand more per year than their nearest competitors. Suck on that, Pennsylvania.
The tone of the Bee article cautioned against scapegoating legislators, which might (should) come naturally in a time of budget deficits. It pointed out that the poor lawmakers already faced pay cuts in 2009, when their free cars were replaced with a $300-per-month car allowance, and their Sacramento living expenses were “slashed” from $173 to $142 per day.
Just to be clear, politicians get $142 every day, tax-free, to cover the cost of food, hookers*, and housing while they work in Sacramento. For you and me, that’s a decent wage on its own. For them, it’s the cherry on top of a $95,000 sundae.
But it’s cool. Those numbers are actually great news for us, because free market principles demand that the highest pay goes to the best performers. Running a state the size of California is hard work, and a job well done deserves fair compensation. I’m sure a quick perusal of state rankings will verify that our legislators deliver some premium stats in exchange for those obscene pay checks. (Warning: This next paragraph is pretty ugly. Please refrain from consuming beverages while reading. If you must drink, face away from family members and loved ones, unless you want them covered in spit-take residue.)
California has the third highest unemployment rate in the nation, which probably has something to do with the fact that we rank dead last in “business friendliness,” according to a 2011 CNBC poll. The Legislative Analyst’s Office says that after more than a decade of billion-dollar budget deficits, we’ve got the nation’s worst credit rating, and our crumbling roads only get $1.5 of the $6.3 billion that’s necessary to keep them from falling apart. Our teachers’ salaries are the highest in the country, but our student-to-teacher ratio is scraping the bottom, as are the students’ math and reading achievement scores. In areas like violent crime and incarceration, we’re not the worst, but we’re pretty awful, with the 15th and 18th highest rates, respectively.
Basically, we’re paying our legislators more than $100 grand a year to ruin what should be the country’s best state. The only reasonable explanation is that they’re crooks, and we’re idiots. After all, we keep electing the same screw ups.
In 2010, when the rest of the country was high on tea and kicking incumbents out on their asses, California re-elected exactly 100 percent of the politicians who wanted another go at that sweet taxpayer teat, even though they had a whopping 14 percent approval rating going into the election. It’s not our fault, though. We’re products of the California public education system, and they had colorful lawn signs.
The California Citizens Compensation Commission, a supposedly independent board that sets the salaries for politicians, met March 29 to hear public comments and staff reports on legislative pay. They’ll decide in June what action to take. Commissioner Chuck Murray told The Sacramento Bee that he’s leaning against a pay cut, but wouldn’t support a raise either. Apparently he thinks things are just dandy the way they are. Here’s the commission’s phone number in case you have any ideas on what they should do: (916) 323-8495.
Assemblywoman Shannon Grove, a Republican from Bakersfield, is attempting another avenue to effect change. She recently drafted a ballot initiative that would amend the California constitution, changing our legislature from full to part time. If passed, senators and Assembly members would meet for a 30-day session at the beginning of the year and 60 days starting in May. Yearly salaries would plummet to $18,000**. The new law would also establish a two-year budget cycle, forcing lawmakers to plan ahead while reducing the trademark gridlock associated with the yearly budget process.
The initiative’s goal is to return to the ideal of public servitude. Right now, politicians rule the capital like kings and only visit their home turf on occasion to raise money for re-election campaigns. Part-time legislators would have to return to their districts for substantial periods between sessions, mingle regularly with voters, and live under the laws they passed. They’d have to keep their day jobs, so that stints in Sacramento would constitute a sacrifice for the public good, instead of a means to leech off the public trust.
In order to get on this year’s election ballot, sponsors need to collect 807,615 signatures from registered voters by late April. Get out there and sign that thing. It will reduce corruption, force politicians to focus on laws that actually matter, and save the state a ton of money.
* My first assignment for New Times consisted of comparing SLO’s crime stats to other counties. The most interesting thing I found was that Sacramento had way more prostitution arrests than any other area. I can’t help but assume it has something to do with sleazy politicians.
** Crap. I just realized that $18,000 in three months isn’t much less than what I make in a year. Our jerk servants have it made no matter how you slice it.
As soon as Calendar Editor Nick Powell comes up with a catchy campaign slogan, you can vote him into the state Senate at firstname.lastname@example.org.