California's Lawless Tinpot Demagogues

If you want a poster child for everything that’s wrong with government in the Golden State, take a look at the California Citizens Compensation Commission, a body that manages to combine lawlessness and unaccountability in equal measures.

Created by Proposition 112, a constitutional amendment passed by the legislature and approved by voters in 1990, the commission has a single task: to set salaries and benefits for state legislators and constitutional officers.

There is, of course, no more touchy political question than how much politicians should get paid for doing the public’s work. It’s an issue perfect for demagoguery.

So the idea behind Prop 112, as in so much else of what passes for “reform” in California, was to take the politics out of politics. California would shift the duty of setting politicians’ pay away from legislators and the governor and lodge it in an independent commission charged with following neutral, technocratic rules. In a ballot argument signed by officials of reformy groups like Common Cause and the League of Women Voters, voters were told, “Proposition 112 will create a salary commission that specifically cuts out bureaucrats and elected officers and includes average Californians….[T]heir decision will be made in public by people like you.” [Emphasis in original.]

Except the seven people on the commission are in no way like the rest of us. Appointed by the governor to six-year terms, they are not subject to confirmation, and they are accountable to no one. They can do what they like and nobody else has a say.

Which is pretty much what the commissioners do. They ignore what the constitution tells them to do and enact their own political preferences, as they did May 31 in slashing legislator and state officer pay by 5 percent.

Charles Murray, the commission member who proposed the cut, cited as justification Gov. Brown’s proposal to reduce state workers’ pay. “I think we will send a message that we have to get out of this hole,” he said. “Everybody has to sacrifice.” That’s the same argument he and other commissioners used in reducing pay by 18 percent in 2009, a year in which the legislature and governor balanced the budget using state worker furloughs and layoffs.

Now leave aside for a moment that the “message” here, considered as public policy, is staggeringly stupid and counterproductive to frugal and efficient government. Do Californians think that state elected officials should have their pay docked because they reduce, or propose to reduce, the cost of providing public services? What sort of incentive is that?

The bigger issue is legal. The constitution doesn’t authorize the commissioners to send messages. It doesn’t tell them to whack officials’ pay in the name of “sacrifice.” It tells them to set pay levels according to the time state officers spend on the job, the scope of their duties, and the pay levels “for other elected and appointed officers and officials in this State with comparable responsibilities,” including judges.

The commission has plainly thumbed its nose at this duty:

  • Under the new pay scale, the next governor will make $165,288. (The reporting on the pay cut seems not to be aware that Article 3, Sec. 4(a) of the constitution says that “salaries of elected state officers may not be reduced during their term of office.”) That is less than the salary of superior court judges ($178,000), half the salary of the city manager of San Ramon, and lower than the salaries of 278 of California’s city managers, whose scope of responsibilities is much smaller than a governor’s.
  • Legislators, who represent ten times as many persons as the average lawmaker in other states, will earn $90,526, far less than county supervisors in the state’s big counties.
  • The state treasurer will be paid $132,230. This salary is well below those typically paid to treasurers and public finance executives in local government, despite the state treasurer having much greater duties. Ironically, those duties include running the Local Agency Investment Fund, in which most of those higher-paid local finance officials deposit much of their cash for the state treasurer to manage for them.

It’s easy to understand why the commissioners have neglected their legal responsibilities and let state officials pay fall behind the comparables set out in the constitution. They get criticized when they raise pay and praised when they lower it. They could have chosen this year not to lower the pay (they could not have raised it, since Prop 1F, enacted in 2009, forbids the commission from doing so in any year the state runs a deficit, which is every year under the state’s broken system of government).

But where would have been the political gain in that? What person is going to pass up the psychic income of playing the tinpot demagogue?

No, in their endless pursuit of creating government without politics, reformers have empowered a group of citizen-politicians to play to the cheers of the roaring mob without fear of any consequence except our disdain. It’s no way to run a democracy.