Sunday, July 25, 2010

A Matter for CIRM to Ponder: California's Visceral Reaction to High Salaries for Public Servants

Lavish government or quasi-government salaries are an anathema to California voters.

They reacted predictably with outrage last week when news surfaced about what they considered egregious greed. Jail time was urged. “Nauseating” was another word that was used.

The response is something to be considered by directors of the California stem cell agency, which has its own set of generous executive salaries. What is important here is what the voters perceive as lavish or greedy – not the perceptions of recipients or the perceptions of those who approve the pay.

One non-CIRM instance involved the city of Bell, a tiny, not particularly well-off enclave not too far south of downtown Los Angeles. It was there that the city manager resigned after it was disclosed by the Los Angeles Times that he was earning $800,000 a year. And that left him with a pension estimated at $600,000, going on $700,000. Times columnist Steve Lopez wrote,
“The sad reality, dear Californian, is that depending on where you live, you may be personally contributing to the insultingly fat pension of ousted Bell city administrator Robert "Ratso" Rizzo.”
The other instance involved the executive director of the non-profit California School Boards Association, which is based in Sacramento and supported by tax dollars that are paid to the association by school boards. The executive, who is mostly a lobbyist, retired after Sacramento television station KCRA disclosed that he made more than $540,000 two years ago, the most recent figure available.

“Piggies,” “unconscionable,” “retire him to the county jail” were some of the 129 comments filed on a Sacramento Bee story about the matter.

The salary scale at the $3 billion California stem cell agency tops out at more than $500,000. Amounts paid to its top executives have triggered harsh comments from a handful of observers. CIRM's contracts with outsiders have also been targeted. But the pay and contracts have received no widespread notice.

A good case can be made that the salaries at the highest levels of the stem cell agency are necessary and appropriate. But that makes little difference to citizens struggling with layoffs, cutbacks and wage roll backs. Even before the current dismal economic climate, they would froth and foam reflexively at what they regarded as excessive pay for public servants.

As CIRM aims at another pitch to the voters for billions more for research, its directors and executives should be preparing for a visceral and emotional outburst from citizens concerning its executives' pay.

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