Saturday, December 06, 2008

Gov. Schwarzenegger Concerned about $500,000 salary for CIRM Chief

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has expressed "deep concern" about a proposal to pay the chairman of the California stem cell agency as much as half-a-million dollars a year.

The letter from the governor to the CIRM board of directors comes as the state faces a $28 billion budget crisis and is cutting aid to the poor and elderly. Legislation was also introduced this week to freeze salaries of state employees who make more than $150,000 a year.

In the Dec. 4 letter, Schwarzenegger, who considers CIRM "one of California's greatest endeavors," said that he would soon nominate a candidate to fill the position of vice chairman of its board. He told CIRM's directors,
"I am also writing to share my deep concern about reports that you plan to consider compensation for the chairman and the vice chairman. CIRM has a responsibility to spend taxpayer money with great care, so I urge you to ensure that compensation for these positions is offered only if and to the extent absolutely necessary to implement its position."
It was unclear what specifically generated the letter. The proposal to pay CIRM Chairman Robert Klein has received little attention. Prior to the governor's letter, the only reports about it have come here on the California Stem Cell Report and on a link to our item on Capitol Alert, the online service of The Sacramento Bee.

If CIRM were a normal state agency, the governor could stop the pay increase. However, CIRM is enshrined in the state Constitution as the result of the ballot initiative that created it. The agency is immune to fiddling by either the governor or the legislature. Neither of those two parties can halt the constant stream of state bond funding to CIRM.

Schwarzenegger's letter also seems to reflect a lack of knowledge about pay at the Golden State's $3 billion stem cell agency. The chairman and vice chairman have always been entitled to a salary. However, Klein and former vice chairman Ed Penhoet have declined to accept pay since December 2004. Both men are multimillionaires. Penhoet recently resigned as vice chairman, but continues to sit on the board, which will vote to select a new one once the nominees are named.

For some months, Klein has mentioned that he would be seeking a salary. However, his current timing seems to be off, given the state's economic crisis. Deserved or not, high salaries and pay increases for government workers can trigger intense and hostile public reaction even under the best of circumstances. In contrast, much more significant financial issues can stimulate no response. That's because salaries are personal and easy for the public to understand.

Klein's salary proposal comes up at next week's CIRM board meeting in Irvine. CIRM posted the governor's letter as part of the agenda.

(The Niche, Nature magazine's stem cell blog by Monya Baker, carried a link to our report on the salary matter on Dec. 5.)

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