NOTE: This story originally appeared at CBS Sacramento.
Three California state senators were officially suspended on Friday by a 28-1 vote, but will continue to receive their pay in part because of a New Jersey court decision, according to documents obtained by CBS13.
The legal troubles of Sens. Ron Calderon, Roderick Wright and Leland Yee have cast a pall on the crumbling Democratic supermajority in the state Senate.
But Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg is reluctant to strip the suspended lawmakers of their pay and benefits because of a legal opinion from the state’s Legislative Counsel Bureau raising possible conflicts with the state’s constitution.
The basis for the opinion starts in 1990 with Proposition 112. The measure, placed on the ballot by the state legislature, was a constitutional amendment meant to curb gifts an influence from lobbyists. It also created the California Citizens Compensation Commission, which would set pay and benefits for legislators.
The Legislative Counsel Bureau advised Steinberg that while senators may be suspended, their compensation can’t be touched by the Senate:
“Apart from the suspension of a Senator’s authority to exercise the privileges of office, we conclude that the Senate may not suspend the salary or benefits of the Senator for the duration of the suspension,” the bureau’s opinion states.
New Jersey Court Rules Against Unilateral Action Against Assemblyman
The bureau pointed toward a 2011 legal decision in New Jersey where an assemblyman’s pay was stripped following a flurry of indictments.
According to court records, New Jersey Assemblyman Joseph Vas was indicted four times in just over four months in 2009:
• March 11, 2009: State grand jury returns an 11-count indictment, charging him with crimes committed while mayor of Perth Amboy, including conspiracy, misconduct, pattern of official misconduct, theft, misapplication of government property, and tampering with public records.
• May 20, 2009: A federal grand jury indicted Vas on eleven counts, charging him with defrauding the public, misapplication of government funds, making illegal campaign contributions, and related crimes.
• May 21, 2009: Vas was charged in a separate 19-count state grand jury indictment with additional crimes committed in his capacity as Perth Amboy mayor, including conspiracy, official misconduct, misapplication of entrusted property, financial facilitation of criminal activity, theft, and a host of other related crimes.
• July 21, 2009: Another federal indictment added more charges related to violations of campaign contribution laws.
After 44 people, including three New Jersey mayors and two New Jersey assemblymen, then Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts, Jr., suspended Vas of his salary and benefits on July 29, 2009.
Vas would appeal the decision, and the court would rule that the unilateral actions taken by the speaker stepped outside the bounds of the New Jersey state constitution. The court did state that had Roberts used the procedures that were in place for sanctioning members, an assembly committee could hard served charges, and that committee could recommend a punishment for the Assembly to carry out.
Legislative Counsel Bureau Balks At Senate Suspending Senators’ Pay
While senators were able to suspend Calderon, Yee and Wright for their legal troubles, the three senators will continue to receive their pay.
That’s because Proposition 112 inserted a provision in the state Constitution, putting the decision in the hands of the California Citizens Compensation Commission:
“Until a resolution establishing or adjusting the annual salary and the medical, dental, insurance, and other similar benefits for state officers takes effect, each state officer shall continue to receive the same annual salary and the medical, dental, insurance, and other similar benefits received previously.” (Article III, Section 8, subdivision i)
According to the legal opinion from the Legislative Counsel Bureau, this portion of the state Constitution puts the issue of compensation for the senators in the hands of the commission and outside the authority of the Senate.
What is the California Citizens Compensation Commission?
The California Constitutional amendment that created the commission states the group meets annually before the fiscal year ends on June 30 to decide what changes are made to legislators’ compensation.
It’s made up of the following people:
• Three members of the public: “[One of whom has expertise in the area of compensation … one of whom is a member of a nonprofit public interest organization; and one of whom is representative of the general population …”
• “Two members who have experience in the business community”
• “Two members, each of whom is an officer or member of a labor organization.”• None of those members can be a current or former officer or employee of the state.
The members are required to be “engaged in official duties” about 45 days out of the year.
In more than two decades of the commission’s existence, there’s no precedent for stripping a lawmaker of their entire salary and benefits amid a legal investigation.