For mud-on-your face goofups in California government, this was a whopper.
Grist for a “Wanna Get Away” commercial, perhaps, involving the hot-button issue of pensions for top elected officials.
The final chapter was written this week by the California Citizens Compensation Commission after a flurry of ‘what do we do now?’ talks.
Along the way, a letter sent to Attorney General Jerry Brown by legislative officials characterized as an “abuse of discretion” what leaders of the pay panel now call an unwitting mistake.
Let’s start at the beginning.
The oddity began June 30, when the state’s pay commission of gubernatorial appointees approved an 18 percent cut in legislative per diem and benefits, including car allowance and medical, dental and vision insurance.
Constitutional officers – from governor to Board of Equalization members – do not receive per diem, but they were included in the 18 percent cut to other benefits.
Now for the mix-up.
Commissioner Scott Somers proposed that pension funding for constitutional officers – current legislators receive no pension – also be slashed by 18 percent. Somers’ 66-word motion is recorded in the state’s written transcript:
“With regard to benefit categories, for legislative and constitutional officers as they apply – including health, dental, vision, long-term disability, life insurance, the Employee Assistance Program, legal services, flexible benefits, long-term care, deferred compensation, optional benefits and pension benefits for constitutional officers only, I make a motion to decrease state funding contributions to each category now receiving state funding by the amount of 18 percent.”
The motion passed unanimously, by voice vote, after other commissioners added car allowances and legislative per diem to the cuts.
Weeks later, however, there was something odd about a resolution signed by commissioners to implement the reductions beginning Dec. 7.
Cuts to constitutional officers’ pensions and car allowances were missing.
Senate and Assembly administrators cried foul in a letter to Brown, written primarily to question the panel’s authority to cut benefits. The letter noted that pension and car allowance cuts targeting constitutional officers were “entirely absent” from the final resolution.
“The fact that the resolution has been tailored in this fashion to single out the Legislature suggests an abuse of discretion on the part of the commission,” read the letter, signed by Greg Schmidt and Jon Waldie, administrative leaders of the Senate and Assembly, respectively.
Brown has not addressed the issue.
Commission Chairman Chuck Murray said he had not been aware either of the omission or that pension benefits had been part of the motion passed.
Murray and commission staff member Debbie Baldwin, who crafted the resolution, said that any discrepancy was unintentional. Nobody asked them to delete pension cuts, they said.
Other members of the pay panel signed the resolution without raising questions, Murray said.
Solution: Edit the resolution, add the two cuts omitted and have it re-signed, right?
Constitutional officers do not receive car allowances, so that issue is moot, Baldwin said.
More problematic is the approved 18 percent cut to pension funding.
Constitutional officers are entitled to pensions under a formula that pays up to 40 percent of their salary after eight years of service.
Somers said he does not remember including pension benefits in his motion, does not think he did so, never intended to target them, and is puzzled by the transcript that showed he did.
Somers said that in researching potential cuts prior to the meeting, “frankly, we did not even look at pension benefits for constitutional officers.”
Baldwin said the commission did not keep a video-recording of the meeting after it was transcribed by a professional service.
Murray said he does not support a pension cut and did not mean to vote yes on it.
Neither wants to implement the cut.
Complicating matters, pension rights are granted to constitutional officers under state law and the pay panel has no clear authority to cut them, according to CalPERS, the state’s pension agency.
But Bob Stern, a political attorney who heads the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, said the pay panel cannot leave intact a public record that shows a cut approved publicly and then dropped inexplicably.
“Otherwise, it looks like somebody is playing games,” Stern said.
Murray agreed, but said that in correcting the record, the important thing is to reflect the commission’s desire rather than to abide by a provision passed in error.
A solution was agreed upon after consulting with legal counsel, Murray said.
Pension funding will not be cut, he said, and the commission’s minutes will be revised or other legal action taken at the next meeting to clarify members’ intent.
Waldie said the panel’s admission of error bolsters his claim to the attorney general.
“I think it just points out the fact that they have abused their discretion,” he said. “Now, how they correct that abuse is another potential abuse of discretion.”
No date has been set for the panel to meet.