By Jim Sanders
Published: Monday, Mar. 26, 2012 – 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Monday, Mar. 26, 2012 – 7:01 am

Salaries for California lawmakers remain the nation’s highest despite years of budget crisis and a belt-tightening backlash that sparked legislative pay cuts three years ago.

For voters eager to target lawmakers as scapegoats for the state’s massive problems, California’s top ranking is sure to fuel debate this week over whether to cut deeper into legislative paychecks.

State-by-state pay statistics will be weighed Friday by the state’s California Citizens Compensation Commission, a seven-member panel appointed by the governor to set pay for legislators and other statewide elected officials.

Salaries don’t tell the whole story. California’s $95,291- per-year legislative pay does not reflect other cuts made to compensation in the past three years, including stripping lawmakers of cars and slashing their payments for Sacramento living expenses from $173 to $142 a day.

California clearly leads the nation in legislative base pay, followed by Pennsylvania, $82,026, and New York, $79,500.

The two East Coast states arguably rank highest in total compensation, however, because legislators there can qualify for pension and retirement medical benefits while California’s lawmakers cannot.

In addition, virtually every New York state senator and a majority of its Assembly members receive extra pay for serving in caucus or committee leadership posts. Most of the stipends range from $9,000 to $12,500, but the highest is $34,000, records show.

Tom Dalzell, chairman of California’s pay commission, said he has not decided what action, if any, should be taken by the panel. Friday’s meeting will be limited to discussion, which could lead to written motions to be acted upon in May, he said.

Dalzell said that a $95,291 legislative salary “is still a fair amount of money” but that he is aware pay levels can affect candidates’ willingness to seek office.

“I think you certainly don’t want to turn politics into just a rich man’s sport,” he said.

By comparison, salaries of some county executives, auditors and district attorneys are more than double that of state legislators, a study by the pay commission found.

Commissioner Chuck Murray said he is leaning against a legislative pay cut but would not support raising pay – “absolutely not” – while the state budget is billions in the red and leaders are pushing for a tax increase “just to break even.”

“As I recall, they’re still some of the highest-paid legislators in the country,” Murray said.

Others are jumping into the fray.

Enough is enough, said Steve Maviglio, a Democratic Party strategist and former spokesman for Assembly speakers Fabian Núñez and Karen Bass.

“You can’t continue tying legislators to a whipping post and beating them,” Maviglio said. “At the end of the day, they have to look at their family and say, ‘Is this worth it?’ ”

Nearly 350 legislative aides or administrators make higher salaries than elected legislators, with the highest-paid receiving more than $190,000 in the Assembly and more than $205,000 in the Senate, records show.

Maviglio said the danger in cutting lawmakers’ pay any more deeply is that California could end up with fewer candidates and a Legislature “not nearly as diverse as the citizens it represents.”

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