This story originally appeared at CBS Sacramento on Feb. 24, 2016
By Kyle Buis
SACRAMENTO (CBS13) — The sentencing of former State Sen. Leland Yee comes just over three months before a Constitutional amendment his arrest helped inspire.
On June 7, Proposition 50 will have California voters decide whether suspended members of the state’s legislature can be suspended without pay. Currently, that power is in a legal gray area.
The California Constitutional amendment was proposed by then state Sen. President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg after three embattled state legislators not only continued to receive their pay, but got raises despite facing criminal charges.
- State Sen. Roderick Wright was indicted by a grand jury for voter fraud and perjury over his place of residence. He was convicted on Jan. 28, 2014, but a series of delays pushed his sentencing to Sept. 12. He resigned days later and served out his sentence on Oct. 30. His 90-day sentence was reduced to less than 90 minutes because it was a nonviolent offense.
- State Sen. Ron Calderon was indicted in February 2014 on charges he accepted money for getting legislation passed. His trial has been delayed until May 10, nearly two years to the day when he decided to take an indefinite leave of absence.
- Finally, Yee, a Secretary of State candidate with a strong gun control record, was arrested and his offices were raided on March 26, 2014 in connection with a gunrunning investigation where he accepted bribes and discussed helping an undercover FBI agent buy automatic weapons from the Philippines. He was sentenced to five years in prison as part of a plea deal on Wednesday.
The three were able to continue receiving their pay because of a legal opinion from the state’s Legislative Counsel Bureau that raised possible conflicts with the state Constitution, specifically 1990’s Proposition 112. The amendment meant to curb gifts and influence from lobbyists also created the California Citizens Compensation Commission, which would set pay and benefits for legislators.
Because of that rule and a court case in New Jersey, the bureau issued an opinion saying the Senate couldn’t touch the salary or benefits of the suspended Senators, since any wage changes were in the hands of the commission.
That commission meets once a year to decide changes to legislators’ compensation, and by law, can only make changes across the board, not for specific lawmakers. That left no room for it to strip suspended lawmakers of their pay, or exempt them from the 2 percent raise granted to legislators in June 2014.
Steinberg’s office proposed Senate Constitutional Amendment 17 to deal with the issue. With a two-thirds vote in the legislature, a lawmaker can be suspended and their pay and benefits can be stripped during the course of the suspension. Another two-thirds vote would be required to reinstate them.
SCA17 was intended to go on the November 2014 ballot, but a delay by the state Assembly pushed it back to this June’s general election.