Date: Mon, 26 Aug 2002 10:02:32 -0400
Subject: [lpaz-repost] (fwd) [Liberty Outlook] Critics get sticker shock over KA lawmakers

On Mon, 26 Aug 2002 05:34:03 -0700, "Mark Laythorpe" <> wrote:

Saturday August 24, 2002, 10:49:26 PM

Critics get sticker shock over lawmakers By VIC POLLARD, Californian Sacramento Bureau

SACRAMENTO -- Bakersfield's two representatives in the state Assembly, Roy Ashburn and Dean Florez, each earn $99,000 a year in salary.

But with extra living expense money, a car allowance, staff salaries and office and travel expenses, it costs taxpayers more than $400,000 annually to keep each lawmaker in office.

And that doesn't count their shares of the large staffs retained by the Legislature to write and analyze bills and scrutinize the state budget.

When you divide the legislature's $197 million budget for the fiscal year that ended June 30 by 120 lawmakers -- 80 Assembly members and 40 senators -- it comes out to more than $1.6 million per politician annually.

Are they worth it?

No, say taxpayer advocates such as Ted Costa, executive director of People's Advocate, a taxpayer watchdog group.

"I think the pay is way out of balance. The perks are way out of balance," Costa said.

But both Ashburn, a Republican, and Florez, a Democrat, insist taxpayers are getting their money's worth.

"It's a good question," Florez said. "Taxpayers ought to know what they are getting for their money. To toot my own horn, I would say it's more than a bargain."

Both Ashburn and Florez point to actions they've taken they say have saved taxpayer dollars.

Earlier this year, Florez, then chairman of the Legislative Audit Committee, went after computer software developer Oracle Corp. for a questionable state purchase of $95 million worth of software it didn't need. The hearings helped push Gov. Gray Davis into rescinding the contract.

If he hadn't pushed for those hearings, Florez said, "The taxpayers might not have received their $100 million (sic) back on the Oracle deal.

"One hundred million dollars is a pretty good return on $400,000," he said.

And Ashburn notes his role three years ago as the point man for Assembly Republicans in negotiations that produced California's version of welfare reform.

He believes he was effective in helping rein in the ruling Democrats' penchant for what he says was making welfare a profitable way of life.

"To this day," he said, "when the subject of welfare comes up, I am expected to make the point for Republicans."

And both men said they work hard for the issues unique to their own districts.

When farmworkers were tragically killed in a van accident, Florez won swift passage for bills requiring seat belts and other safety measures in such vans. He also sponsored the bill that allowed construction of a second prison in Delano, which is expected to bring jobs and more state money into that impoverished town.

Ashburn has repeatedly gotten the governor's signature on bills to provide millions in state funding for the search for a valley fever vaccine and to improve funding for foster care.

Even so, lawmaker salaries and perks make an attractive target.

Two years ago, Bakersfield's Republican congressman, Bill Thomas, even got in on the act.

He spearheaded a drive to cut state legislators' salaries by 25 percent as a means to win voters over to a plan to halt the Democratic-controlled redrawing of legislative and congressional districts. It was thrown off the ballot in a court challenge.

Costa of People's Advocate said he believes the criticism keeps coming because most lawmakers have lost a sense of community service.

"What they want is status in the community and their status is a little higher than the people who elected them," Costa said. "So they feel they should be paid what a Superior Court judge is paid or the CEO of a company, and they get it."

Salaries, perks and bennies

Salaries are basically out of the hands of the Legislature these days.

In 1990 voters approved Proposition 112, which created an independent salary commission to do the job for them.

However, the commission has proven to be more generous than lawmakers ever had the courage to be toward themselves.

In less than a decade, the commission has nearly doubled legislative salaries, from $52,500 in 1994 to the current $99,000.

The trade-off for taxpayers in Proposition 112 was that the measure also ended the Legislature's very generous pension plan for lawmakers elected after 1990 and barred them from accepting fees for making speeches, once a major source of extra income for some.

Ashburn was elected to the Assembly in 1996 and Florez in 1998, so neither qualifies for a pension. But all lawmakers are eligible for health, dental and life insurance benefits for themselves and their families.

A more controversial source of income for lawmakers is their livng expense allowance of $121 per day, known as per diem, which they receive for the seven or eight months they are in session each year. It is regarded as compensation for the expense of having to maintain a second residence in Sacramento.

Per diem is tax free and amounts to about $24,000 a year for each lawmaker, bringing their total personal compensation to about $123,000.

Per diem payments vary slightly because members do not qualify for it on days they take off for personal business. They also do not get it during their month-long summer recess and their three-month winter hiatus, although most of them maintain apartments or other housing arrangements year-round.

Lawmakers are also given $400 a month toward a car lease and a state-paid credit card for gas, oil and repairs.

Florez drives a 2001 Lincoln and Ashburn a 1999 Ford Explorer under the lease program.

For each lawmaker, the biggest expense is office staff salaries. Legislators maintain year-round offices in Sacramento plus one to three offices in their districts.

Ashburn has one office in Bakersfield and Florez has three in his sprawling west side district, located in Bakersfield; Lemoore in Kings County; and Fresno.

The district offices provide a point of contact for voters and usually focus on services to constituents who have problems with state government, while the Sacramento offices are more involved in bills and public policy issues.

Ashburn's staff salary costs were $212,489 and Florez's were $155,999 in 2000, according the latest pubished breakdown of costs for individual lawmakers.

However, they have risen considerably since then, according to current figures provided by the Assembly Rules Committee, the house's administrative agency.

They show Florez has 10 paid employees on his staff whose salaries amount to $414,864 a year.

Ashburn counts eight workers in his offices, with a total payroll of $264,636.

Staffs vary in size for a variety of reasons. Majority Democrats usually have more staff than minority Republicans; and committee chairs and vice chairs have extra staff.

There is no cap on the number of staff members legislators may have, nor is there a cap on how much staff can be paid.

Watching his back

Legislators can also arrange staff duties however they wish.

In Florez's case, he likes having backup.

His senior assistant, Mercedes Flores, spends her days when the Assembly is in session watching her boss's back, literally and politically speaking.

Flores sits at a vacant reporter's desk behind her boss, reminding Florez, if necessary, of how he plans to vote on a bill and keeping notes on all votes, politically sensitive issues and maneuvers.

She makes sure Florez knows about anything significant that happens when he is off the floor and that other lawmakers who cast electronic votes for him while he is away don't have him voting the wrong way.

When things get sticky, she comes in very handy.

As a moderate-to-conservative Democrat, Florez suffers from suspicion -- even animosity -- from the many liberal Democrats in the Assembly.

After he was fired by Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson as chairman of the Audit Committee that investigated the Oracle computer scandal, Assembly Republicans tried to reinstate him over Wesson's objections.

Florez happened to be in Bakersfield that day. But the ever-present assistant Flores was able to assure suspicious Democratic leaders immediately that her boss was not behind the move.

Flying high

Florez and Ashburn have relatively high travel costs, roughly triple the average of about $5,800 in the 2000 report. They blame that on the long distance and expensive air service between Bakersfield and Sacramento.

The Assembly pays for one round-trip airfare per week for each member. However, it will only pay for the regular cost of a commercial flight, which in the Kern lawmakers' case is $218 between Burbank and Sacramento.

There's no regular airline service between Bakersfield and Sacramento, so Ashburn and Florez usually take Bakersfield Air Charter, which makes one round-trip per day.

But it's more expensive, and the lawmakers have to dip into their campaign treasuries to make up the difference between the $218 commercial fare and the $340 charter price.

Ashburn said he usually makes one round trip per week, but Florez takes more frequent trips, either driving or paying the extra air fare from his campaign kitty.

Another expense that stands out in Florez's report is mass mailings to voters in his district, described officially as communications. Such taxpayer-funded newsletters and other mailings have often been criticized as treading too close to the line between official government information and campaign literature. As a result, legislative rules prohibit them from being mailed too close to an election.

Florez spent more than $23,700 on mailings in 2000.

Although that was a little less than the Assembly average, Ashburn showed no expenses for mailings that year. However, the GOP lawmaker said he has sent out a couple of "informational" brochures about his positions on legislative issues more recently.

Flrez said his mailings consist mostly of notifying voters about hearings, community forums and other events he has scheduled in the district on public policy issues.

Although the Rules Committee provided updated staff salary information, Chief Administrative Officer Jonathan Waldie refused to provide any more current data for other expenses of the local lawmakers. He said that information is still being compiled for the next scheduled publication date Nov. 30 and under the Legislative Open Records Act officials are not required disclose reports that are not final.

Both Florez and Ashburn said they requested the information on The Californian's behalf to no avail.

Performance evaluations

Are Kern's legislators earning their pay?

There's no accepted method of measuring the effectiveness of a lawmaker because the public views each of them through subjective partisan glasses.

But if voters are any judge, both men have been elected and re-elected by solid majorities.

Both are now running for the state Senate and are expected to win easily.

Ashburn has no opposition on the ballot at all, and Florez is opposed by Republican Blair Knox, who has little campaign money and is not well-known.

Nevertheless, there are critics who say the Legislature has become a bloated empire whose members from both parties are overpaid and have redrawn their districts to virtually guarantee their re-election for the rest of the decade.

Before 1966, the California Legislature was a poorly paid part-time body that met for far less time each year.

But then-Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh won voter approval to professionalize the Legislature, paying higher salaries for full-time work in hopes of attracting more dedicated and honest public servants.

Salaries and expenses rose so rapidly that by 1984 Costa and anti-tax crusader Paul Gann teamed up to sponsor an initiative to cut the Legislature's budget by 30 percent and rein in the power of the majority party.

Voters passed it, but it was soon dismantled by the courts.

In 1990, the same year Proposition 112 passed, a new crop of critics won passage of Proposition 140, which not only cut the Legislature's budget by 40 percent but imposed term limits.

After surviving court challenges, the measure now limits Assembly members to three two-year terms and Senators to two four-year terms.

Since then, however, the Legislature's budget has continued to grow. It was $180 million in the 2000-2001 fiscal year. With a severe deficit in the overdue budget for the current fiscal year, lawmakers are seeking a smaller increase, to about $200 million.

2002, The Bakersfield Californian

NOTICE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed, without profit, for research or educational purposes to those who have expressed a prior interest.

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