Against a backdrop of deep fiscal distress, several state 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.
The Assembly also trimmed about 13 percent from its overall payroll in the current fiscal year, while the Senate instituted one-day-a-month furloughs in July for most staffers, spokeswomen for both houses said.
Even so, the pay increases to dozens of legislative staffers between January and the end of June came as tens of thousands of state workers were seeing pay cuts of nearly 10 percent.
In the Assembly, 39 employees received pay increases of 10 percent or more. Of those, 15 saw increases of 20 percent or more. Seven of the nine Senate staffers 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.
In the Assembly, 10 increases went to Republican staffers and 12 went to security staff employed by the Assembly Rules Committee. Most of the rest went to employees of Democratic lawmakers or their committees, according to the AP review.
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 pay of 10 employees also decreased in the Assembly during the first six months of 2009 by a total annualized amount of $102,000, either because those workers were putting in fewer hours or changed jobs within the Legislature.
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.
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.
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."
Among the other findings in the AP's review of legislative pay records:
- Assemblyman Mike Feuer, D-Los Angeles, awarded seven pay increases totaling more than $38,388 annually. That included a 5 percent increase for Drew Liebert, a chief consultant to Feuer, whose salary rose to $149,124. One of those employees doubled her working hours, said Rebecca Marcus, a spokeswoman for Feuer. A 7 percent increase for an eighth employee was rescinded during the period, she said. Marcus declined further comment.
- Two staff members for Democratic Assemblyman Jared Huffman, Alfred Brandt and Genevieve Colborn, received 5 percent increases that brought their salaries to $122,712 each. A 5 percent increase brought another staffer's salary to $75,960. A spokeswoman for Huffman, of San Rafael, declined comment.
- Five employees in the office of Assemblywoman Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, had their pay boosted by 10 percent. Their total salaries now range from $37,778 to $91,620. Anthony Matthews, a spokesman for Evans, declined comment. Evans is chairwoman of the Assembly Budget Committee.
- Five staffers for Assemblyman Hector De La Torre, D-South Gate, received increases. De La Torre is co-chairman of a new committee designed to identify inefficiencies in state government. Their increased pay ranges from $40,068 a year for a field representative in the lawmaker's district office to $81,924 -- a 10 percent increase -- for Glenda Corcoran, who is assigned to work for the new Accountability and Administrative Review Committee. The assemblyman's spokesman declined comment.
- Republican Sen. Dave Cogdill boosted the pay for his chief of staff, Charles Hahn, from $120,936 to $138,540 when he returned to work full-time, said Sabrina Lockhart, a spokeswoman for the Modesto lawmaker. Cogdill was the Senate minority leader until he was ousted earlier this year.
- Bass, the Assembly's leader and one of four lawmakers who head budget negotiations, gave increases of 10 percent or more to three of her employees, including Max Espinoza, whose pay rose to $109,596 when he was promoted to chief consultant. In addition, three employees of the Democratic caucus Bass oversees received increases of 12 percent to 13 percent. That includes Deborah Doty, whose pay rose to $97,356 when she was promoted from senior consultant to principal consultant.
- Bass came under fire in April for approving a separate round of raises totaling $551,000 annually to 136 Assembly staff members. She rescinded the raises a day after they were reported in the Los Angeles Times.
- Murphy, Bass' spokeswoman, said the Assembly has cut $42 million from its budget over a 2½-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.
The money is being transferred to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the Employment Development Department, California State University system and other agencies to them help avoid further cuts, she said.
Murphy said she could not specify the full $42 million in cuts the Assembly made to make up for the funding transferred elsewhere, although $1.7 million was cut this fiscal year in anticipation of a salary reduction for lawmakers that takes effect next year. She said all Assembly members have had their office budgets cut by 10 percent. Bass also saved $275,000 a year by closing her Washington, D.C., office at the end of June, Murphy said.
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."
On the raises for security staff, she said the unit's total payroll is expected to fall by at least $60,000 this year.
The state Senate has cut less on a percentage basis than the Assembly, transferring about $4.8 million last year and an expected $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.
Alicia Trost, a spokeswoman for Steinberg, said one employee received a 7 percent pay increase, bringing his salary to $64,944, while another received a 3 percent increase to $53,916. The other seven staffers all took on more hours or returned to full-time work after leaves, she said.
Among them was the staff director for the Senate Office of Research, Sara McCarthy, who saw her annual pay rise from $113,000 to $127,128 when she went from working 80 percent of full-time to 90 percent.
Starting in July, Steinberg ordered Senate staff who make more than $50,000 a year to begin taking one-day-a-month unpaid furloughs, equating to a 5 percent pay cut. He also imposed a hiring freeze.
"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," Trost said.
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.
Bruce Blanning, executive director of the Professional Engineers in California Government, which represents 11,000 state engineers who are taking the pay cuts, said he does not think legislative staffers should be subject to furloughs -- but neither should he and his colleagues. The group is suing the governor over the furlough order.
"I think people who work hard and do good work should get a raise, and that's true of our members as well," Blanning said.
Schwarzenegger's office responded to the same AP request by providing both written and electronic documents.
Those records 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 the same two-a-month furlough days.
The third furlough day was added in July and was not reflected in the six-month payroll window. Many of the governor's employees continue to work full-time despite having their pay cut, said Aaron McLear, Schwarzenegger's spokesman.
"We believe that just as the administration has been doing, all parts of state government need to cut back," he said. "The governor believes we should continue to look for ways to cut back but is confident the Legislature shares that priority."