Despite $20 billion deficit, California government still offering big paychecks

That adage "One hand giveth, the other taketh away" can apply to California's state and city government agencies, particularly the people in them who determine pay increases.

As the state plunges further into a double-billion-digit deficit and holds a special election next week for voters to determine, among other things, whether to increase state taxes, the outrages seem to come monthly. There's always some group of government workers getting big pay raises, while their peers see their salaries slashed, or are losing their jobs altogether.

First, in late April, more than 120 staffers working at the state capitol were granted salary increases (two-thirds of the increases went to aides for Democrats, the majority party). As taxpayers screamed, the pay increases were rescinded a day later because they were becoming a "distraction."

Next, the Sacramento Bee took a look at salaries for the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District and found that 80% of its employees earned more than $100,000 last year in salary, incentives and overtime (the Fire Chief made $321,000), while 50 recently-retired employees will get six-figure pensions for life.

The pay packages were approved several years ago when times were flush. And, to their credit, the employees' union recently agreed to forego raises. Firefighters, especially those working during California's fire season, deserve to be paid well, but when the Governator threatens budget cuts that will eliminate 2,000 firefighters if a related special-election ballot isn't approved, it makes me wonder whether too much money is going into too few firefighters' hands.

The most stomach-churning story is about the massive pay packages given to two new chancellors at University of California campuses -- on the same day the UC system announced student fees would rise -- yet again -- another 9%.

Linda Katehi, who will preside over UC Davis, gets an annual salary of $400,000, which is $85,000 more than the outgoing chancellor, and $44,000 more than she makes now as provost of University of Illinois. (She'll also get a $100,000 relocation package to move from that lower-cost state but she'll still get free housing in Davis).

Susan Desmond-Hellman of UC San Francisco will get $450,000 a year. Coming from biotech giant Genentech, she will be taking a big cut from her $725,000 salary, but she'll still be earning nearly 12% more than her UCSF predecessor. According to the Bee, the regents heard testimony on the morning of May 8 from angry, tearful students begging them not to increase education costs -- then made the job offers at lunchtime!

UC President Mark Yudof defends the moves, by saying the salaries are low compared with those of chancellors at similar universities nationwide, and anything lower wouldn't let him get the talent needed to run these universities. "I felt like I got a pretty good discount, as a matter of fact," he told the Bee.

Mark, we're in a recession. There is a lot of talent out there that would probably jump at six-figure salaries even lower than the ones you offered Katehi and Desmond-Hellman. Or am I being totally naive and academia is still a castle fortess totally protected from the economy?

Also, while there is a difference between the public sector and private industries, isn't there a way to make job prospects understand that now is not a good time to hike salaries when other university employees are being laid off and students are seeing tuition hikes almost every year? These women live in states with big budget problems, they probably read the papers, so they know what the financial situation is. If they want to be university chancellors, shouldn't they have concern for the students they're expected to lead? If more money was the only way you could lure them to the UC posts, well, you may not have gotten such a great deal, after all.

The only UC regent who did not approve the student fee hikes and abstained from voting on the new chancellors was Lt. Gov. John Garamendi.

"At a time when students are having to pay increasing fees, I think it's wrong to provide salary increases and what I would consider to be excessive salaries," Garamendi said.

Too bad, John, that more government officials don't agree with you.

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