The State of California Owes Me Money

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

INVOICE

From: Joe Mathews
To: State Controller
CC: The Legislature, the Governor
Re: Unpaid Wages And Back Pay

Please consider this my bill for $7786 in unpaid wages and back pay for my work as a California lawmaker.

Yes, I know we have a highly professional, full-time legislature, but those guys keep kicking the toughest decisions about laws and constitutional amendments to me. They can’t even pass a budget these days without putting six measures on the ballot and calling a special election. And big interest groups and rich guys keep throwing things on the ballot for me to decide too.

It’s time consuming. I try to read every word of each measure. (After all, who would vote on significant legislation without reading it?). I study the ballot arguments for and against, read the legislative analyst’s office work on the measures, and consider commentary on both sides. I also ask people at my local coffee house how I should vote, because, like any good lawmaker, I need to keep in touch with the views of the people.

If I’m going to have to vote on so much major legislation, I should be paid as a legislator, don’t you think? Yes, I have another job, but from what I read in the papers, many of the assembly and senate members are paid for outside work too. So let’s break it down. The annual legislative salary is just over $116,000. Every lawmaker I’ve ever met says they work so hard they can’t take any vacation. So divide the salary by 52 weeks, and again by 40 hours a week (the pro-labor majority in the legislature would never dream of working unpaid overtime, I’m sure). The lawmaker’s hourly rate is $56 per hour.

Here’s my time sheet. For the May 19 special election, it took me four hours to wade through the six measures, looking up legal terms and references (like the two ballot initiatives that are being raided for funds in Props 1D and 1E). All my other reading and communing with the people at the coffee house took me another six hours. That’s 10 hours in total – a full day’s work. So you can understand why I’m also billing you for the $170 per diem. (That would buy 12 pizzas at the restaurant nearest to my apartment, the Shakey’s at Olympic and Fairfax). And since I don’t want to violate state law, I insist on being paid time and a half for the two hours of overtime. The state thus owes me $786 for this election.

But, unfortunately, this isn’t the first time I’ve been deluged with legislative work. Over the past four years, I’ve had to vote on 64 statewide ballot measures, going back to the March 2004 election. Generously, state law allows for four years of back pay, and I want to honor that.

So here’s the bottom line. Looking back over previous years’ legislative salary levels, estimating the amount of time each measure required, and factoring in a state COLA of 5 percent, let’s call it $7,000 that I’m owed for my work over the past eight election cycles. (Three elections in 2008, two in 2006, the 2005 special and two more in 2004). Add that to my bill for this year’s election, and my invoice comes to $7786.

I’ll take cash or check.

I know you’re short on cash right now, but I would argue that I’m a bargain compared to the professional legislators. I don’t have a staff or state-funded offices, though I’m deducting the kitchen table this year, since that’s where I do my legislating. (Suck on that, Franchise Tax Board). Unlike the professional legislators, I don’t need the state to buy me an expensive, environmentally correct car.

 And I don’t have a campaign committee, so I don’t have embarrassing hotel, restaurant or art expenses from my trips to European capitals. (Though I must confess that, as a lawmaker, this makes me feel inadequate; I lack the broader perspective on issues that such lavish travel provides). And in the spirit of Gov. Schwarzenegger’s call for shared sacrifice, I’m not billing you for my paper and pens, my Internet connection or the Black’s Law Dictionary that I use to look up legal terms.

I realize you could deny this invoice, but let me point out that we live in a state full of plaintiffs’ attorneys who specialize in wage and hour cases. Let’s say one of them certified a class action and that 5 million voters joined up (a conservative number: more than 12 million people cast votes on ballot propositions last fall by the way), we’re talking… $40 billion! Wow. That’s equal to the estimated budget deficit that produced the deal that forced me to vote on six special election ballot measures.

I think it’s in your best interests to cut me the check. If it makes you feel better, you can classify my paycheck as economic stimulus.

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