The State Citizens Compensation Commission meets today to begin considering whether to increase the salaries of elected state officials. Whether the current salaries should go up, down or stay the same is not up to me – I had a chance to decide on state salaries and let it pass. In the early 1990s, I received a call from Governor Pete Wilson’s office to see if I would be interested in an appointment to the recently created Compensation Commission. The Commission was created by Proposition 112 in 1990. I turned the proposed appointment aside.

Dealing with compensation is a tricky business for those who study these matters. Consider the challenges for voters who may be asked to make a decision on salaries in the non-profit world. The Service Employees International Union is circulating at initiative petition to set the salaries of non-profit hospital executives at no more than the salary of the president of the United States, $450,000 per year.

SEIU is taking its labor dispute to the voters to chastise management. The effort seems coordinated with other SEIU divisions. Oregon SEIU is behind a ballot measure also aimed for November’s ballot that would limit hospital executive compensation to 15 times the annual salary of the lowest paid employee.

The idea of setting salary by ballot measures could perhaps expand to labor as well. Earlier in the week, San Francisco Chronicle columnists Phillip Matier and Andrew Ross made an issue of the high salaries earned by a number of city workers, many in the fire department. According to city records over 700 workers took home over $200,000 a year. The writers noted that the mayor, Ed Lee, was 37th on the salary list. Might an initiative come along to adjust government salaries?

It’s been tried before in California. In 1986, taxpayer advocate Paul Gann qualified Proposition 61 for the ballot that proposed to set the governor’s salary at $80,000, other constitutional officers at $52,500 and limit state and local elected government employees compensation to 80% of the governor’s salary. It also required a vote of the people to increase salaries of elected officials.

My former boss, Howard Jarvis, wasn’t enamored with his ex-colleague’s proposal and did not support it. The measure lost handily. Setting salaries by ballot measure can be problematic. It is difficult to sift through complex data and set a standard rate for all. Local government positions within the state vary tremendously according to size and responsibilities.

When the Compensation Commission meets it has been reported that commissioners will be considering state salaries in relation to what local officials make. Such comparisons can be fraught with dangers. There is no certainty that the local government salaries are set properly. Imagine using the salary of disgraced City of Bell administrator Robert Rizzo as a measuring stick prior to the time the scandal was revealed.

What makes salary setting for government officials different than the private sector is that those who set the salaries don’t do the hiring (perhaps with the exception of New England town meeting type governments.)

Still salaries must be set, by commission, or by the officials themselves or by other means. Perhaps the best check the voters would have over the setting of public salaries is the power of referendum if they don’t approve of the results.