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Lawmakers switch days to collect payments; picket $65,000 on Friday

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POSTED February 17, 2012 8:48 p.m.


 

SACRAMENTO  (AP) — Both houses of the Legislature met for less than an hour Friday, offering eulogies to departed constituents, introducing guests and commemorating Japanese-Americans who were interned during World War II.

While the brief sessions offered little in the way of substance, they did allow lawmakers to continue collecting a perk — their $142-a-day per diem payments that boost their annual salaries by tens of thousands of dollars.

Total cost to taxpayers for making the payments over the four days starting Friday: $65,000.

"The whole thing is really done just to line their own pocketbooks," said Bob Stern, former president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles.

He said switching the day of the legislative session ahead of a holiday weekend is a long-standing tradition but also is a questionable one, especially as California continues to deal with ongoing budget shortfalls that have forced billions of dollars in spending cuts.

Stern said he supports compensating lawmakers for the time they are in Sacramento, but said "the whole weekend situation is really kind of absurd. They're not up there during the weekend."

The per diem payments are intended to compensate out-of-area lawmakers who must travel to the capital for business and are supposed to reimburse them for daily living expenses. But they also have been a source of criticism in recent years, especially because lawmakers collect the money even when they are not in Sacramento.

When asked whether per diem payments were appropriate over a weekend when lawmakers don't meet, Assemblyman David Valadao responded, "There's no way of answering this in a good way."

Valadao, a Republican from Hanford, 200 miles from Sacramento, declined further comment.

California lawmakers already are the nation's highest paid, making $95,290 a year, and receive separate reimbursements for travel and mileage. The per diem payment gives each lawmaker who collects it about $30,000 more a year; all but six of the Legislature's 120 lawmakers take it.

In 2010, per diem payments to lawmakers cost California taxpayers $3.1 million, enough money to educate 437 public school students for a year.

Lawmakers in the other three states with full-time legislatures — Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania —also are entitled to varying rates of per diem pay.

In California, the Assembly and Senate typically meet in full session Mondays and Thursdays but switch the second floor session to Friday ahead of a holiday weekend. That ensures that lawmakers do not lose out on the per diems, which they are due as long as the Legislature does not take a break of more than three days.

The Legislature made the same switch last month to protect the payments —which are tax-free— ahead of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

On Friday, the 40-member Senate clocked in at 9:07 a.m., recited the Pledge of Allegiance, listened to a prayer and took up one bill, AB324 by Sen. Joel Anderson, R-La Mesa, which corrects a drafting error in an earlier law. Senators introduced guests and offered eulogies, then adjourned 19 minutes after their session began.

The 80-member Assembly met for 50 minutes without taking up any bills. Guests were introduced, and lawmakers spent about 30 minutes commemorating Feb. 19 as a day of remembrance for Japanese internment.

Within an hour of adjourning, at least a dozen lawmakers were spotted at Sacramento International Airport.

Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, said the Legislature convenes on Friday when there is a short week ahead so lawmakers can meet with staff and advisers.

"This is not new because we need to be able to do our business, especially now this being the time when we are developing our bill package," she said.

Lawmakers said they also are busy with committee meetings, drafting bills and meeting with constituents on the days the Legislature is not in session. Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, said only the wealthy might opt to serve in the Legislature if lawmakers were not reimbursed for the costs of being away from home, which includes apartment rent.

"It's a legitimate concern by voters," he said of the payments. "But it's a legitimate issue to having average people being able to get up here and do this job."

The California Citizens Compensation Commission, an independent body that sets lawmakers' pay, has questioned whether it is appropriate for legislators to receive the per diems when the houses are not actually meeting.

The commission's chairman, Thomas Dazell, asked the California Franchise Tax Board last May to clarify when lawmakers can collect the payments because the current policy is so broad.

The tax board responded by saying the issue is not in its purview.

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