Will California Legislators Continue Getting Paychecks?

By: - June 20, 2011 12:00 am

Questions over pay and benefits for state workers have been at the center of California’s budget debate all year long. Early on, Republican lawmakers signaled that they might be willing to entertain tax extensions sought by Democratic Governor Jerry Brown in exchange for an overhaul of public worker pensions. 

But now, it’s the pay and benefits of lawmakers themselves that are at issue. After Brown swiftly vetoed the budget they sent him last week, lawmakers went back to work without any clear sense of whether they would receive their next scheduled paychecks on June 30.

That’s because Proposition 25, a constitutional amendment voters passed last November, says that lawmakers must forfeit their pay for each day they miss the June 15 budget deadline. In California, whose legislators are the highest paid in the country , that can really add up: Lawmakers get an annual salary of ,000, as well as a per diem for living and travel expenses.

Legislators say they should get paid because they in fact did pass a budget before the deadline. And there’s language in Proposition 25 that makes clear that lawmakers are to be paid even if the governor vetoes their budget. (The measure also made it possible to pass a budget with a simple majority, rather than the two-thirds majority that previously had been required.)

But State Controller John Chiang isn’t so sure. Chiang, who would be the one to cut the paychecks, says that his interpretation of the state Constitution is that the budget lawmakers have to pass by the deadline is one that is truly “balanced.” Brown contends that the budget he vetoed was unbalanced because it relied on fiscal gimmicks; Chiang publicly applauded Brown’s veto.

Still, Chiang hasn’t made an official decision yet on whether he believes the budget that lawmakers sent Brown passed muster.  “Chiang was waffling Thursday, saying he wants ‘to complete our analysis’ before deciding whether to pay lawmakers at the end of the month,” Dan Walters wrote last week in the Sacramento Bee . “If Chiang pays legislators, the rejected budget will look like a giant charade by Democrats to evade the law. And the fun will continue.”

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Melissa Maynard

Melissa Maynard oversees the Pew state fiscal health project’s Fiscal 50 online resource, which helps policymakers understand fiscal, economic, and demographic trends affecting their states by tracking tax revenue, reserves, employment rates, Medicaid spending, and other issues important to long-term fiscal health.