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In budget crisis, some Calif. staffers got raise

Against a backdrop of deep fiscal distress, several California lawmakers rewarded their employees with pay hikes during the first half of the year, an Associated Press review finds.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Against a backdrop of deep fiscal distress, several California lawmakers rewarded their employees with pay hikes during the first half of the year, an Associated Press review of legislative pay records showed.

At least 87 California Assembly staff members received raises totaling more than $430,000 on an annualized basis, even as the state faced a growing budget deficit that led to furloughs and pay cuts for many other government workers and steep reductions in core services.

The review of records obtained under the state Legislative Open Records Act found that salary bumps went to three employees in the office of Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, the Los Angeles Democrat who leads the 80-member chamber, and three to staff members of the Democratic caucus she oversees.

In the 40-member Senate, nine staffers had a boost in pay, leading to an annualized increase of $152,000.

Aides to several members of the Assembly and Senate said some of the increases were not raises in the traditional sense. Rather, they described the higher pay as extra compensation for employees who were working more hours.

In the Assembly, 39 employees received pay increases of 10 percent or more. Of those, 15 saw increases of 20 percent or more.

In the Senate, seven of the nine who received increases saw their pay rise by 10 percent or more as they began working more hours, according to staff.

Five Assembly staffers and two Senate staffers who already made $100,000 a year or more saw their pay rise.

Deepening budget deficit
The Assembly had 1,206 employees on its payroll as of June, said Shannon Murphy, a spokeswoman for Bass. Of those, about 7 percent had received pay increases, the AP review found.

Murphy said the Assembly's annual payroll had decreased by $1.3 million in June from a year earlier, with 15 fewer employees.

The Legislative Open Records Act allows the Legislature to be far more restrictive in its release of information than other state agencies, which are covered under a separate law, the California Public Records Act.

Both houses of the Legislature refused the AP's request to make the payroll records available electronically. Details of their spending are not listed in the annual budget the governor signs, as they are for other state agencies and departments, meaning there is no way to cross-check the information the Legislature provides.

The first six months of the year represents a period in which lawmakers and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger were grappling with a deepening budget deficit that eventually forced them to make some $30 billion in cuts over a two-year period to education, health care, state parks and other programs.

Justifying raises
At the same time the Legislature was awarding pay increases, some 200,000 state government employees had been furloughed two days a month, equivalent to a 9 percent pay cut. That has since been increased to three days, or a nearly 15 percent pay cut.

During that period, Assemblywoman Lori Saldana, D-San Diego, awarded a total of $41,000 in annualized pay increases to her staff, the highest total increase for any member of the Legislature.

That included 20 percent pay boosts for three of her employees and a 15 percent increase for her chief of staff, Lucy Krohn, bringing her annual wage to $110,640.

Joe Kocurek, a spokesman for Saldana, said the lawmaker's elevation this year to a leadership role and to chairwoman of the Legislative Women's Caucus made the pay increases necessary. He said several staff members had not received raises in two years, while others were promoted to higher positions.

"We felt it necessary to maintain experienced and dedicated staff rather than lose them to other opportunities," Kocurek said in an e-mailed statement.

Under a microscope
Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, said legislative leaders should recognize that California's turbulent finances have put them under a microscope. They should not contribute further to their poor image among taxpayers, he said.

"There may be a few exceptions, but just generally they have to be thinking more about PR than thinking about their staff," he said. "Of course, it's an infinitesimal amount of money in the big picture, but it's the symbol of it. It doesn't matter what they've cut."

Murphy, spokeswoman for the Assembly speaker, said the Assembly has cut $42 million from its budget over a 2 1/2-year period, including nearly 13 percent from its $149.4 million 2009-10 budget. She said that was more than the 10 percent Schwarzenegger asked legislative leaders to cut this fiscal year and more than the state Senate trimmed.

Murphy defended the pay increases by saying legislative employees are working harder than ever. She said the cuts in the Assembly's 2009-10 budget are nearly double what would have been saved by furloughing staffers three days each month.

"The pay adjustments going to Assembly staff, who have taken new jobs or duties, are about 1 percent of the reductions we've made," Murphy said. "The Assembly's budget is down, the number of Assembly staff positions is down and the Assembly payroll is down."

Hiring freeze
The state Senate has cut less on a percentage basis than the Assembly. It is expected to cut $9.6 million of its $111.3 million annual budget in the current fiscal year, said Jim Evans, a spokesman for Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento.

The AP's review showed there were nine pay increases in the Senate during the first six months of 2009.

"The Senate is on a strict hiring freeze and salary freeze. Any change of salary has been due to an increase in the number of hours the employee is working," said Alicia Trost, a spokeswoman for Steinberg.

Documents from Schwarzenegger's office showed the administration payroll falling from 154 employees earning a total of $955,746 a month to 147 employees earning $825,157 at the end of June, as employees were ordered to take two-a-month furlough days.

"We believe that just as the administration has been doing, all parts of state government need to cut back," said Aaron McLear, Schwarzenegger's spokesman. "The governor believes we should continue to look for ways to cut back but is confident the Legislature shares that priority."