The State Worker: How CHP officers' salaries became law

jortiz@sacbee.comJuly 17, 2013 

Of all the state employee unions that bargain with Gov. Jerry Brown, the group that recently got what will likely be the biggest bump this year wasn't even part of a contract negotiation.

The 6,700 members of the California Association of Highway Patrolmen got a 5.9 percent raise thanks to a law that bases their pay on the total compensation averages of the San Diego, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Oakland police departments and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

How that salary-setting advantage became a law is a testament to the union's persistence and savvy in a CHP pay saga that began more than 40 years ago.

In 1972, California voters rejected a ballot measure tying CHP pay to the maximum earned by police statewide and the department struggled to recruit. Republican Gov. Ronald Reagan signed a 1974 law requiring the state to annually recommend CHP wages to the Legislature and governor based on a wage survey of the five departments.

The recommendations went mostly unheeded. By 1979, patrol officers earned nearly 21 percent less than the locals. First-term governor Brown vetoed a raise to bring CHP up to par. The Legislature overrode him.

The political win didn't change legal reality. The parity law was toothless. "From the first day I got here, I heard that," long-time union director Jon Hamm said recently.

In 1994, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson amended the law to make CHP pay parity the state's "policy." At the time, officers' salaries were 15 percent below the five-department average.

Once re-elected, Wilson ignored the law. The union sued and lost. The courts ruled that a pay policy isn't a pay mandate.

Then-Democratic Gov. Gray Davis said in 2001 that the state couldn't afford any raises. Hamm worked a five-year deal: No raises for two years, then parity with the locals by 2006. Plus, a significant tweak to the law: "... the state shall pay" patrol officers the average of the five departments.

Since then, the union's annual pay increases have ranged from zero to nearly 6 percent this year.

Jeff Michael, a economist at Stockton's University of the Pacific, said law enforcement parity clauses are common and create a salary "arms race" among jurisdictions.

"Why should the people of California," he asked, "be bound by poor decisions by the city of Los Angeles?"

The law, of course, could always change again if the public gets restless. By comparison, SEIU Local 1000 wrangled a 4.5 percent raise over three years for the 95,000 employees it covers. Other unions will likely get similar deals.

Hamm understands the politics of parity, and the union hasn't always grabbed all the money it could. For example, it agreed that a third of this year's raise will go toward paying future retiree health costs - something it didn't have to do.

Sometimes there's a difference between what the law allows and what is wise.

Call The Bee's Jon Ortiz, (916) 321-1043. Follow him on Twitter @thestateworker and read his blog, The State Worker.

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