Raise Their Pay and Keep Them Working

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)

Here’s a terribly unpopular idea that we should act upon anyway.

Pay California legislators more.

OK, feel free to cover your ears and scream at the top of your lungs and ask what the heck I’m thinking.

But please keep reading. I’m thinking four things.

1.  They’re doing a pretty good job. Legislators and other California officeholders have taken salary hits in recent years. That made a certain amount of sense – given the dysfunction in Sacramento and the fact that Californians were also in bad economic times. But there’s a broad media consensus that, at least this year, the legislature did its job. The budget is balanced, at least for now. A number of difficult topics were tackled, and a fair amount of progress was made (yes, a lot of that progress was small compared to California’s needs, but still admirable when one considers how constrained elected officials are in the state).

2.  Fighting corruption. Their salaries are dangerously low, if we’re worried about corruption or undue influence. Lawmakers make just over $90,000 a year – that’s a lot of money, yes, but a fraction of what the people with whom they spend their days (and whom they must resist) — lobbyists, strategists and political consultants – make. Michael Rubio’s departure from the legislature to the Third House is the sort of thing that can happen when people outside the legislature are paid so much more than people inside. Ideally, we should pay legislators like lobbyists or consultants, to weaken temptation and put them on a level playing field; at lobbyist-level salaries, some lawmakers could afford to fund campaigns, and not spend as much time fundraising. The last thing you want is lawmakers who are worried about their personal finances or finding a good-paying job after they leave office.

3.  They have lots to do. California asks more of its legislators than any other state. Our lawmakers represent roughly 3 times more people than lawmakers in any other state, and 10 times more than the national average. We don’t want folks who have so many people to represent to be worrying about making money; they need every available moment to represent their many constituents.

4.  Affordable housing. I was struck by the fact that the standard legislative salary is not enough to buy the median-priced, existing single-family house in many parts of California. Lawmakers from Orange County, Ventura County, Santa Barbara County and Santa Cruz County, along with much of the Bay Area, have salaries less than the income required to buy that median-priced home in those areas, according to new data from the California Association of Realtors. Heck, the governor, whose salary is $165,288, doesn’t make enough to afford the median-priced home in Marin County (which would require an income of $186,910), in San Mateo County ($184,520) or in San Francisco ($173,450).

The mantra of “Cut their pay and send them home” is an old one. We should say: “Raise their pay and keep them working.”

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