By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO, California (Reuters) - California state senators, embarrassed by not being able to more harshly punish state legislators facing criminal charges, moved forward on Tuesday on a measure that would allow them to suspend their pay in the future.
Senate Democratic leader Darrell Steinberg introduced the measure in response to criticism that three senate Democrats suspended in March following a series of scandals have been able to collect their salaries while off the job.
"I will not seek to belabor the unfortunate genesis of this bill," Steinberg told the Senate Elections and Constitutional Amendments Committee, which passed it by a vote of 4-1. The bill, in the form of a constitutional amendment, must be passed by two-thirds of the legislature and voters before it can go into effect.
The bill's sole opposition came from Republican Senator Joel Anderson, who has called for the expulsion of the three senators, an action that would eliminate the need to change the law and would by its nature strip the three of their pay.
Anderson said he opposed the proposed constitutional amendment because it would grant more power to legislative leaders while leaving voters unserved in the districts where their representatives were stuck on leave.
The three suspended senators, Ron Calderon, Roderick Wright and Leland Yee, have faced criminal charges in a spate of ethics scandals that have damaged the public approval ratings of California lawmakers in general and cost Democrats a cherished two-thirds legislative majority in the Senate during an election year.
Wright was convicted in January of lying about living in a district he sought to represent, Calderon was indicted in February on corruption charges, and Yee was arrested in March on bribery and gun-trafficking conspiracy charges.
The Senate voted on March 28 to suspend the three with pay in a rebuke that, while unprecedented in state history, was criticized by Republicans as tantamount to a paid holiday for bad behavior.
Under the state constitution, the responsibility for lawmakers' salaries lies with the California Citizens Compensation Commission, which means that lawmakers cannot withhold pay from colleagues even if they are suspended, Steinberg said.
Even if the amendment passes, it will not affect the three senators currently under suspension, Steinberg said.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento; Additional reporting and writing by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Grant McCool and Steve Orlofsky)