EDITORIAL: California puts the squeeze on bureaucrats

State employees to be paid minimum wage

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Thousands of California bureaucrats face the prospect of having their lavish paychecks slashed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Full payment will be withheld until lawmakers come to an agreement with the larger-than-life executive on how they’re going to pay the state’s overdue bills. With Mr. Schwarzenegger’s fellow Republicans holding just 42 of the legislature’s 120 seats, the Democratic majority has had little motivation to budge from their position. Until now.

Under orders from Mr. Schwarzenegger, most state employees will be paid no more than the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour because the state blew the constitutionally mandated June 15 budget deadline. The maneuver is perfectly appropriate, considering that powerful public-sector union bosses are largely responsible for the state’s fiscal disaster. Lawmakers afraid to stand up to the unions have consistently approved ever-greater spending on benefit packages.

“The other side believes in higher taxes and bigger government and protecting the public-sector employees at the expense of the private sector,” Mr. Schwarzenegger explained in a June 25 video statement. He pointed out that the state will spend $32 billion on salaries and benefits this year, an increase of 65 percent over the past 10 years. In that time, revenues went up just 24 percent.

The resulting bureaucrat paycheck averaged $57,536 last year, according to data from the Sacramento Bee. That represents a healthy 37 percent more than what the rest of the public earned on a per-capita basis. Individual examples provide even more insight into how absurd the system has become. At least 37 dentists employed by the state’s Department of Corrections were paid more than $290,000 last year. Of these, Timothy B. Malan took home a whopping $621,970 to pull teeth from jailbirds at Avenal State Prison. The gravy train even has openings, as the state personnel board is currently advertising for prison dentists listing salary ranges that top out at $261,792.

The recession has not been kind to ordinary workers, who saw their personal incomes shrink 3.5 percent between 2008 and 2009, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. State employees, on the other hand, engorged themselves over the same period. The state’s payroll chief, Donald W. Scheppmann, saw his annual income rise from $121,109 to $250,978. It’s not hard to see why his boss, state Controller John Chiang, would move to block the pay-cut order.

The California Court of Appeal on Friday crushed Mr. Chiang’s arguments, blasting him for ignoring directives to prepare the payroll computers for the long-expected pay cut. “Here, legislative gridlock makes it reasonable to expect that budget impasses will continue in the future, and the Controller has made it clear he intends to disregard any similar pay letter in the event of a future budget impasse,” the three-judge appellate panel wrote. Mr. Chiang and the Service Employees International Union lost the case on every point. On Tuesday, the governor filed suit to force Mr. Chiang to follow the law.

The Golden State’s excessive spending problem mirrors the national problem. According to Department of Labor statistics released last month, the average salary for state and local employees was 22 percent higher than that of private-sector workers. The private-sector workers are hit hard with taxes to pay those overly generous public benefits. In California and nationwide, economic recovery will not take place without hearing the lamentation of the unions. Cutting pay to bring them to the table is a great start.

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