California Lawmakers Collect Thousands On Top Of Salary While Absent
In addition to their six-figure salaries and benefits, California's 120 lawmakers are compensated for their cost of living and meals when they leave home and travel to Sacramento to write and pass bills.
Unlike in many other states, however, California lawmakers have over time crafted loosely worded rules for themselves that allow them to collect those payments regardless of whether they even show up to work.
It's a perk unlike anything typically available to workers in the private sector, allowing lawmakers such as Assemblyman Roger Hernandez to take unlimited time off and continue collecting a tax-free, daily allowance of $176.
The West Covina Democrat said his 24 sick days this session were due to high blood pressure, a condition he disclosed to reporters after his wife accused him of physical abuse and obtained a restraining order against him during divorce proceedings.
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He said he never considered waiving the $4,168 in per diem he collected over those days.
"My landlord in Sacramento didn't consider waiving my rent," Hernandez said of the Sacramento home he has leased for more than five years.
California lawmakers took 325 days off during the legislative session that recently ended to stay home sick, be with their families or other reasons unrelated to their jobs, but chose to receive about $56,000 collectively in taxpayer-funded living expenses, a review by The Associated Press found.
The AP obtained payroll documents through legislative open records requests and compared them to daily roll calls published in journals from the two-year legislative session from December 2014 through last Aug. 8. The data show lawmakers were absent from the Capitol a total of 1,093 days and the vast majority of them regularly collected payments for living expenses on days they were away.
Republican Assemblywoman Catharine Baker of Dublin, California, about 90 miles from Sacramento, is among a handful of lawmakers who waive all per diem payments, choosing not to opt into a system that she calls flawed. When the Legislature is in session, she said she crashes on her parents' couch in West Sacramento.
She said no employer pays you when you're at home.
"That's the kind of fringe benefit that we can let the taxpayers not have to fund," she said.
State law allows per diem for living expenses connected to lawmakers' official duties, namely attending a floor session or committee meeting, but also during "any other legislative function" authorized by the rules that lawmakers over time have written for themselves.
Robert Stern, former president of the Center for Governmental Studies, a watchdog group, said lawmakers essentially see per diem as an extension of their $100,000 to $115,000 annual salaries.
"They don't feel they get enough salary," he said. "When they're not there they shouldn't be getting at least meals."
Debra Gravert, chief administrative officer of the Assembly Rules Committee, which oversees payroll in the lower chamber, said collecting per diem is "optional" for lawmakers. The rules do not mandate it or specify whether absences qualify, leaving the payments open to interpretation.
"Nowhere does it explicitly state 'You are paid when you are sick,' it's where it's basically not stated," Gravert said.
The rules effectively give lawmakers a pass for any excuse other than personal business, which includes campaigning, but it's up to lawmakers to decide whether their reason for being gone qualifies for pay.
AP's review also found that lawmakers collectively received nearly $52,000 on 300 days they said they were away from Sacramento and reported they were still working. They waived per diem on all 383 days they reported taking personal days, as well as on 85 days they voluntarily waived per diem when gone for other reasons.
The largest individual recipient was former Sen. Sharon Runner, R-Lancaster, who collected nearly $13,000 while missing most of this year's legislative session when she became ill. She died on July 14.
Runner, who returned to the Legislature in 2015 after receiving a double lung transplant in 2012, missed nearly every legislative business day in the four months before she died, collecting $12,976 in per diem on 74 sick days this session.
"Despite her illness, Sharon was involved in the day-to-day decision-making process in her office," said Micah Grant, a spokesman for Runner's husband, Board of Equalization member George Runner.
Kevin McCarty, a Democrat who lives two miles from the Capitol, waived per diem at the start of this session then began collecting it in January. He said he donates the sum to a children's charity, which he calls a "mini-appropriation" of money in the state budget.
States vary widely in how they distribute per diem. In some, lawmakers are expected to be physically present for a head count in the Capitol to get the allowance. In Maryland, lawmakers submit food receipts to receive meal reimbursements.
List of California lawmakers' per diem collected when absent
Here is a list of current members of the state Legislature, the total number of days they were absent, and how much per diem each lawmaker collected on days they were absent during the most recent legislative session, from Dec. 1, 2014 to Aug. 8, 2016.
Benjamin Allen, D-Santa Monica, two absences, $176
Joel Anderson, R-Alpine, 19 absences, $1,888
Patricia Bates, R-Laguna Niguel, 11 absences, $1,048
Jim Beall, D-San Jose, one absence, $0
Tom Berryhill, R-Twain Harte, 31 absences, $2,432
Marty Block, D-La Jolla, two absences, $168
Anthony Canella, R-Ceres, 16 absences, $1,864
President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles, seven absences, $176
Jean Fuller, R-Bakersfield, 12 absences, $840
Ted Gaines, R-El Dorado Hills, 24 absences, $0
Cathleen Galgiani, D-Stockton, five absences, $688
Steven Glazer, D-Orinda, eight absences, $0
Isadore Hall, D-Compton, 21 absences, $0
Loni Hancock, D-Oakland, seven absences, $864
Ed Hernandez, D-Azusa, six absences, $344
Robert Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, 13 absences, $352
Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, three absences, $512
Ben Hueso, D-San Diego, one absence, $0
Bob Huff, R-San Dimas, 12 absences, $1,216
Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, seven absences, $872
Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, eight absences, $520
Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, one absence, $176
Connie Leyva, D-Chino, five absences, $0
Carol Liu, D-La Canada Flintridge, 20 absences, $1,024
Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, four absences, $688
Tony Mendoza, D-Artesia, five absences, $504
Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, seven absences, $504
Bill Monning, D-Carmel, one absence, $0
John Moorlach, R-Costa Mesa, four absences, $0
Mike Morrell, R-Rancho Cucamonga, six absences, $344
Janet Nguyen, R-Fountain Valley, 12 absences, $1,704
Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, three absences, $512
Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, nine absences, $0
Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, 20 absences, $3,232
Richard Roth, D-Riverside, one absence, $141.86
Sharon Runner, R-Lancaster, 86 absences, $12,976
Jeff Stone, R-Temecula, six absences, $168
Andy Vidak, R-Hanford, 15 absences, $520
Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont, two absences, $176
Lois Wolk, D-Davis, 18 absences, $176
Katcho Achadjian, R-San Luis Obispo, four absences, $168
Luis A. Alejo, D-Salinas, 13 absences, $520
Travis Allen, R-Huntington Beach, 36 absences, $2,351
Joaquin Arambula, D-Kingsburg, one absence, $0
Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, 11 absences, $1,024
Catharine Baker, R-Dublin, five absences, $0
Frank Bigelow, R-O'Neals, 10 absences, $1,706
Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, six absences, $528
Susan A. Bonilla, D-Concord, 17 absences, $1,167
Rob Bonta, D-Alameda, three absences, $176
William Brough, R-Dana Point, 13 absences, $1,896
Cheryl Brown, D-San Bernardino, five absences, $344
Autumn R. Burke, D-Los Angeles, three absences, $336
Ian Calderon, D-Whittier, six absences, $1,032
Nora Campos, D-San Jose, 20 absences, $2,376
Ling Ling Chang, R-Diamond Bar, nine absences, $696
Ed Chau, D-Arcadia, four absences, $520
Rocky Chavez, R-Oceanside, nine absences, $856
David Chiu, D-San Francisco, 14 absences, $2,272
Kansen Chu, D-San Jose, six absences, $1,016
Ken Cooley, D-Rancho Cordova, four absences, $0
Jim Cooper, D-Elk Grove, three absences, $0
Matthew Dababneh, D-Encino, 17 absences, $2,784
Brian Dahle, R-Bieber, five absences, $512
Tom Daly, D-Anaheim, nine absences, $1,360
Bill Dodd, D-Napa, four absences, $504
Susan Talamantes Eggman, D-Stockton, eight absences, $0
Jim Frazier, D-Oakley, four absences, $696
Beth Gaines, R-Rocklin, 31 absences, $0
James Gallagher, R-Plumas Lake, four absences, $704
Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens, six absences, $688
Eduardo Garcia, D-Coachella, eight absences, $1,216
Mike Gatto, D-Glendale, four absences, $696
Mike A. Gipson, D-Carson, one absence, $0
Jimmy Gomez, D-Los Angeles, five absences, $520
Lorena S. Gonzalez, D-San Diego, five absences, $520
Richard S. Gordon, D-Menlo Park, one absence, $0
Adam C. Gray, D-Merced, 10 absences, $1,736
Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield, 15 absences, $1,936
David Hadley, R-Torrance, six absences, $0
Matthew Harper, R-Huntington Beach, three absences, $344
Roger Hernandez, D-West Covina, 27 absences, $4,680
Chris Holden, D-Pasadena, four absences, $176
Jacqui Irwin, D-Thousand Oaks, four absences, $504
Brian Jones, R-Santee, five absences, $840
Reggie Jones-Sawyer, D-Los Angeles, seven absences, $352
Young Kim, R-Fullerton, 11 absences, $512
Tom Lackey, R-Palmdale, no absences
Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, four absences, $696
Eric Linder, R-Corona, five absences, $706
Patty Lopez, D-San Fernando, five absences, $856
Evan Low, D-Campbell, four absences, $344
Brian Maienschein, R-San Diego, no absences
Devon Mathis, R-Visalia, 11 absences, $1,040
Chad Mayes, R-Yucca Valley, one absence, $176
Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, eight absences, $528
Jose Medina, D-Riverside, seven absences, $688
Melissa Melendez, R-Lake Elsinore, 36 absences, $1,200
Kevin Mullin, D-South San Francisco, 11 absences, $1,896
Adrin Nazarian, D-Los Angeles, nine absences, $1,016
Jay Obernolte, R-Hesperia, three absences, $512
Patrick O'Donnell, D-Long Beach, 14 absences, $1,208
Kristin Olsen, R-Riverbank, 11 absences, $1,024
Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, two absences, $344
Henry Perea, D-Fresno, 11 absences, $1,680 (asterisk) Perea resigned on Dec. 31, 2015
Bill Quirk, D-Hayward, two absences, $336
Anthony Rendon, D-Paramount, seven absences, $344
Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, D-Los Angeles, 16 absences, $2,385
Freddie Rodriguez, D-Pomona, two absences, $352
Rudy Salas, D-Bakersfield, five absences, $680
Miguel Santiago, D-Los Angeles, six absences, $1,048
Marc Steinorth, R-Rancho Cucamonga, seven absences, $1,048
Mark Stone, D-Scotts Valley, one absence, $176
Tony Thurmond, D-Richmond, four absences, $352
Philip Ting, D-San Francisco, seven absences, $864
Donald Wagner, R-Irvine, three absences, $512
Marie Waldron, R-Escondido, 16 absences, $2,487
Shirley N. Weber, D-San Diego, five absences, $520
Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita, seven absences, $1,208
Das Williams, D-Carpinteria, 12 absences, $1,216
Jim Wood, D-Healdsburg, four absences, $688