Prop 50 seeks to suspend legislators pay if charged with crimes: Little financial support or opposition to measure

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Proposition 50, the only proposition on the June 7 ballot, proposes a constitutional amendment to suspend salaries and benefits of California legislators when they are charged with crimes during their terms of service.

Salary suspension would remain in effect until all legal proceedings against the legislators were dismissed. The Legislative Counsel noted that the law currently permits suspension of the legislators but not of their salaries.

The measure was developed following the Legislature’s inability to force three legislators to forfeit their salaries and benefits after being suspended. All three had been charged with serious crimes, and the Legislature voted in March 2014 to suspend them. Never before, in the 164-year history of the California Legislature, had it suspended a member, much less attempted to remove their salaries, legislative perks and privileges because of a criminal charge.

Although state newspapers and groups have split on the measure, there is little money being spent on either side to influence the outcome.

The measure was proposed in the California Senate by State Sen. Darrell Steinberg (D-6) as Senate Constitutional Amendment 17. Were it to pass, it would amend Section 5 of Article IV of the state constitution to require a two-thirds vote in the affected chamber of the Legislature to suspend a member and their benefits. Said Steinberg, “[Proposition 50] is a technical but important fix to the fact that the Legislature cannot suspend its members without pay under the Constitution. It’s nothing more, nothing less than that.”

As part of a possible vote to suspend the member and their salary and benefits, the motion to suspend must contain “findings and declarations setting forth the basis for the suspension.” The resolution could require that benefits be forfeited for all or part of the period of suspension. Finally, the suspension of benefits would remain in effect “until the date specified in the motion or resolution, or, if no date is specified, the date a subsequent motion or resolution terminating the suspension is adopted by roll-call vote entered in the journal, two-thirds of the membership of the house concurring.”

Those in favor of the Constitutional amendment note, as did the Sacramento Bee, that “Proposition 50 is worth supporting as a step to help keep California’s legislators in line … We hope that this tool is rarely needed — and it should only be used for criminal cases or egregious misconduct, not for political retribution.” The Bee’s editorial board endorsement also noted the measure could have been better drafted to specifically lay out when and how it would apply.

In its endorsement, the Bee acknowledges the case being made by others against passage of the amendment. Specifically, it could violate a citizen’s due process, and the language in the amendment is too vague, leaving the door open to punish an incumbent for purely political reasons.

As the Los Angeles Times noted in opposition, “Unpaid suspension could conceivably be used for political reasons. Many legislators come from modest means, and losing their legislative paycheck could force them out of office.” Supporters counter that the safeguard [against using the proposed law for political reasons] is the requirement of a two-thirds vote of the chamber in question. The Times board also noted, “One reason [to reject the measure] is that it would violate the right to due process afforded to every citizen of this country, including politicians who are behaving badly … [also, the measure] doesn’t set any criteria for what transgressions would justify this punishment, and there’s no mechanism to ensure that it would be applied consistently.”

Calmatters, a non-partisan media venture, noted the lack of spending on either side reflects big-money disinterest in the measure. Said Jessica Levinson, professor of political law at Loyola Law School, “Voters will look at this and say, ‘It makes sense — you act badly, you shouldn’t get paid. But people have to look a little deeper.” Levinson was referring to the inexact wording of the measure and the fact that it doesn’t lay out specific reasons for suspending a legislator.

“This is going to be a great tool for them to use against people like me who stand up against the majority,” said State Sen. Joel Anderson (R-Alpine) who opposes the measure. Anderson was the only senator to vote against suspension of the three senators in 2014, noting that suspension was equivalent to a paid vacation. He advocated expelling them, which would have terminated their paychecks and given voters the opportunity to replace them.

For more on Prop 50, visit voterguide.sos.ca.gov/.

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