Constitutional Amendment To Strip Suspended Lawmakers’ Pay Advances In Assembly

NOTE: This story originally appeared at CBS Sacramento.

A California constitutional amendment that would strip suspended lawmakers of their pay is a step closer to going before voters after it passed an Assembly hearing on Monday.

SCA17 was crafted in response to the recent legal troubles of three California state senators, and the inability of the state legislature to suspend their salaries. The three suspended senators have cast a pall on the crumbling Democratic supermajority in the state Senate.

Under current rules, the state Senate and Assembly can’t take a suspended lawmakers’ salary, because of a state constitutional amendment, Steinberg’s office contends.

Sens. Roderick Wright, Ron Calderon and Leland Yee were suspended on March 28 after all three refused to step down from their positions.

Wright was convicted of eight counts of perjury and voter fraud in January after his 2010 grand jury indictment. At the time, Senate President Pro Tem declined to suspend Wright, instead opting to wait for his sentencing. Since then his sentencing was delayed in March and again in May until July 21.

Calderon and his brother, former Assemblyman Tom Calderon, were indicted on Feb. 21. Ron Calderon was charged with accepting $100,000 in bribes, lavish trips and no-show jobs for his children in exchange for pushing legislation to benefit a hospital engaged in billing fraud and participating in a film industry tax scheme that actually was an FBI sting. He’s since pleaded not guilty.

Calderon, like Wright, wasn’t suspended initially by Steinberg. Instead, the indicted state senator decided to take a leave of absence in early March.

But following aspiring secretary of state candidate Yee’s March 26 arrest in connection with a gunrunning operation, Steinberg’s office held a forceful press conference demanding the three senators step down. Two months to the day of Wright’s conviction, the California Senate voted 28-1 to suspend the three senators.

The Senate, however, couldn’t touch the lawmakers’ salaries, according to Steinberg. His office instead says an opinion from the Legislative Counsel Bureau has his hands tied on the issue.

According to documents obtained by CBS13, the legislative office ruled the Senate couldn’t touch the suspended senators’ salaries, because that power falls under the California Citizens Compensation Commission. The legislative office pointed to a New Jersey court ruling in favor of a suspended state senator whose pay was stripped by that state’s senate.

In the months since the suspensions, the commission approved a 2 percent pay raise for state legislators and officers, including Yee, Wright and Calderon. One caveat of the commission is it must act unilaterally on all legislators’ salaries and can’t pick and choose who it goes after. That means raises for everyone, even if they’re suspended.

SCA17 has passed the state Senate, and will be scheduled for a floor vote in the Assembly. If it passes, the measure would then move on to voters on a future ballot.

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Why Did Three Suspended California Senators Get A Pay Raise?

NOTE: This story originally appeared at CBS Sacramento.

The California Citizens Compensation Commission met on Friday and approved a 2 percent raise for California lawmakers and state officials, including embattled state Sens. Ron Calderon, Leland Yee and Roderick Wright.

As CBS13 reported exclusively reported on March 28, the three senators facing legal troubles have been officially suspended, but are still being paid because of a legal opinion from the state’s Legislative Counsel Bureau.

The legislative bureau suggested to Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg’s office that a state Constitutional amendment from 1990 meant to curb gifts an influence from lobbyists prevented the Senate from taking action. That fell under the California Citizens Compensation Commission‘s jurisdiction after Proposition 112 added this language to the constitution:

“Until a resolution establishing or adjusting the annual salary and the medical, dental, insurance, and other similar benefits for state officers takes effect, each state officer shall continue to receive the same annual salary and the medical, dental, insurance, and other similar benefits received previously.” (Article III, Section 8, subdivision i)

The commission approved Friday’s 2 percent raise for state officials and legislators, but took no action on the three embattled senators.

Why would the one commission who has jurisdiction over the legislators’ pay not take up the issue?

CBS13 got answers from Steinberg’s office and found out while the commission determines if legislators get a pay bump, and how big of a pay bump, the change must be done across the board. The commission cannot change individual legislators’ pay, including stripping Yee, Calderon and Wright of their taxpayer-funded salary.

Raises Effective Dec. 2014

Position Current Salary New Salary
Governor $173,987 $177,467
Lieutenant Governor $130,490 $133,100
Attorney General $151,127 $154,150
Secretary of State $130,490 $133,100
Controller $139,189 $141,973
Treasurer $139,189 $141,973
State Superintendent $151,127 $154,150
Insurance Commissioner $139,189 $141,973
Board of Equalization $130,490 $133,100
Speaker of the Assembly $109,584 $111,776
Senate Pres. Pro Tem $109,584 $111,776
Minority Floor Leader $109,584 $111,776
Majority Floor Leader $102,437 $104,486
Junior Minority Leader $102,437 $104,486
All Other Legislators $95,291 $97,197

Steinberg’s office has put forward another state Constitutional amendment, SCA17, that would allow the same body that suspends a legislator to also suspend that legislator’s salary.

The amendment has already passed the state Senate and is set for an Assembly Rules Committee hearing on Thursday.

REVIEW: Mario Kart 8 Is The Kick In The Pants Nintendo Needed For The Wii U

This review originally appeared at CBS Sacramento.

After nearly a week of playing Mario Kart 8, it appears this entry is the best to come out of the two decades of the game. Nintendo has shown it is more than capable of showcasing what its systems can do through its first party titles.

Most of the complaints I have about the game are small and have already been addressed in plenty of other reviews:

The Battle mode has been nerfed. While I enjoyed occasionally turning a race into an all-out battle fest with my nephews, having tracks double as battle courses severely cripples the mode. Even with 12 racers, tracks can feel barren and opportunities to hit your opponent are few and far between. It doesn’t help that this game doesn’t have an onscreen map.

Lack of customization. Mario Kart 8 provides plenty of ways to change your kart. Unlockable options include new bodies, new wheels and even new gliders. But the differences between those parts are few and far between. Up to four of the wheels can offer the same statistics, with the only differences being cosmetic. Mix in that the 30 character options boil down to heavyweight, medium-weight, and lightweight and there just aren’t that many directions to go.

Online waiting times. I’ll give Nintendo credit, they’ve gotten better with online systems since the last generation. But I’ve encountered too many times where I’ve been ready to jump into a random online race, only to be greeted by the beginning another race. While it’s nice to see other racers compete, these wait times can cause competitors to drop out and shrink the field you’re racing against.

But even with those issues and my long-winded dissections of them, the eighth installment in this franchise is just the thing the Wii U needs to get out of its funk. The console’s been bogged down by headlines about its poor sales and even calls for Nintendo to pull a Sega and kill the Wii U off Dreamcast-style.

That last idea seems more like click-bait than reality. Still, the console’s lifetime sales are locked between the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, despite a one-year advantage.

Nintendo reported that more than 1 million copies of Mario Kart 8 sold in the opening weekend alone, giving the company a solid boost, though there was no official breakdown of how many new console sales came from the game.

One thing Mario Kart 8 shows off that will help push console sales is just how it looks. While Sony and Microsoft had more powerful consoles in the previous generation than the original Wii, and even more powerful entries this generation, Mario Kart 8 shows the Wii U’s graphical capabilities are nothing to sneeze at in the right hands. The game runs buttery smooth at 60 frames per second in 720p, even in two-player races (Nintendo still hasn’t cracked the smooth four-player race yet). The result is an experience that looks the most advanced of this generation so far.

But those are just a bunch of numbers that don’t do the game justice. Instead, here’s a video showing of the reimagining of the Mario Kart 64’s Rainbow Road course at the 1:05 mark.

This is all in-game footage. It’s not the sort of pre-rendered sizzle reel that doesn’t exist on the disc you’ll see plenty of at next week’s Entertainment and Electronics Expo.

Following Rainbow Road on that video is another retro track—the game features 16 of them, as has been the norm—from Super Mario Kart (SNES). Instead of simply creating a graphically updated version of the older courses, Nintendo’s gone and redone them, incorporating the game’s new features, like zero-gravity stretches and underwater plunges.

The best example of the drastic change is the update to Moo Moo Meadows, as shown in this video. The track on the left is from the Wii version released last generation:

In addition to the retro courses, there are 16 new courses for a total of 32 tracks that each have their own distinct feel. One race you’ll be gliding by a castle, the next you’ll be dodging streetcars in an oceanside city, and another you’ll be watching Shyguys rave in the Electrodome (sadly, no glowsticks, just a ton of neon).

The best new feature this game has to offer isn’t its graphics, or its tracks, or its new items (finally one that can destroy a blue shell!).

It’s the highlight videos.

After each race, you can view a 30-second reel of the best moments from the race. It ranges from tricks to hits to daring passing moves. It even shows when one of your green shells happens to wipe out your girlfriend’s cart a good six seconds after you launched it. Or that time she plowed you into a cable car.

The highlights range from 30 seconds to the entire race and allow you to focus on certain racers. This, combined with the intensity of Luigi’s facial expressions, has created a small Internet phenomenon revolving around Luigi’s death stare.

But really, the entire reason I’m writing this is to show off my own highlight video. I had to make sure to bury it this far in so you wouldn’t get suspicious.

Check out that hangtime.

California Senators Hold On To Pay Because Of New Jersey Court Decision

NOTE: This story originally appeared at CBS Sacramento.

Three California state senators were officially suspended on Friday by a 28-1 vote, but will continue to receive their pay in part because of a New Jersey court decision, according to documents obtained by CBS13.

The legal troubles of Sens. Ron Calderon, Roderick Wright and Leland Yee have cast a pall on the crumbling Democratic supermajority in the state Senate.

TIMELINE: SENATORS’ LEGAL TROUBLES

But Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg is reluctant to strip the suspended lawmakers of their pay and benefits because of a legal opinion from the state’s Legislative Counsel Bureau raising possible conflicts with the state’s constitution.

The basis for the opinion starts in 1990 with Proposition 112. The measure, placed on the ballot by the state legislature, was a constitutional amendment meant to curb gifts an influence from lobbyists. It also created the California Citizens Compensation Commission, which would set pay and benefits for legislators.

The Legislative Counsel Bureau advised Steinberg that while senators may be suspended, their compensation can’t be touched by the Senate:

“Apart from the suspension of a Senator’s authority to exercise the privileges of office, we conclude that the Senate may not suspend the salary or benefits of the Senator for the duration of the suspension,” the bureau’s opinion states.

New Jersey Court Rules Against Unilateral Action Against Assemblyman

The bureau pointed toward a 2011 legal decision in New Jersey where an assemblyman’s pay was stripped following a flurry of indictments.

According to court records, New Jersey Assemblyman Joseph Vas was indicted four times in just over four months in 2009:

March 11, 2009: State grand jury returns an 11-count indictment, charging him with crimes committed while mayor of Perth Amboy, including conspiracy, misconduct, pattern of official misconduct, theft, misapplication of government property, and tampering with public records.

May 20, 2009: A federal grand jury indicted Vas on eleven counts, charging him with defrauding the public, misapplication of government funds, making illegal campaign contributions, and related crimes.

May 21,  2009: Vas was charged in a separate 19-count state grand jury indictment with additional crimes committed in his capacity as Perth Amboy mayor, including conspiracy, official misconduct, misapplication of entrusted property, financial facilitation of criminal activity, theft, and a host of other related crimes.

July 21, 2009: Another federal indictment added more charges related to violations of campaign contribution laws.

After 44 people, including three New Jersey mayors and two New Jersey assemblymen, then Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts, Jr., suspended Vas of his salary and benefits on July 29, 2009.

Vas would appeal the decision, and the court would rule that the unilateral actions taken by the speaker stepped outside the bounds of the New Jersey state constitution. The court did state that had Roberts used the procedures that were in place for sanctioning members, an assembly committee could hard served charges, and that committee could recommend a punishment for the Assembly to carry out.

Legislative Counsel Bureau Balks At Senate Suspending Senators’ Pay

While senators were able to suspend Calderon, Yee and Wright for their legal troubles, the three senators will continue to receive their pay.

That’s because Proposition 112 inserted a provision in the state Constitution, putting the decision in the hands of the California Citizens Compensation Commission:

“Until a resolution establishing or adjusting the annual salary and the medical, dental, insurance, and other similar benefits for state officers takes effect, each state officer shall continue to receive the same annual salary and the medical, dental, insurance, and other similar benefits received previously.” (Article III, Section 8, subdivision i)

According to the legal opinion from the Legislative Counsel Bureau, this portion of the state Constitution puts the issue of compensation for the senators in the hands of the commission and outside the authority of the Senate.

What is the California Citizens Compensation Commission?

The California Constitutional amendment that created the commission states the group meets annually before the fiscal year ends on June 30 to decide what changes are made to legislators’ compensation.

It’s made up of the following people:

• Three members of the public: “[One of whom has expertise in the area of compensation … one of whom is a member of a nonprofit public interest organization; and one of whom is representative of the general population …”

• “Two members who have experience in the business community”

• “Two members, each of whom is an officer or member of a labor organization.”• None of those members can be a current or former officer or employee of the state.

The members are required to be “engaged in official duties” about 45 days out of the year.

In more than two decades of the commission’s existence, there’s no precedent for stripping a lawmaker of their entire salary and benefits amid a legal investigation.

DVD Review: Parade’s End

“They could not have picked a worse person to review this.”

Those were the reassuring and entirely accurate words from my girlfriend after finishing Parade’s End.

I’m the guy who has managed to fall asleep during Downton AbbeyPride and Prejudice, and some third British period piece that’s making me drowsy just thinking about it.

And the beginning of Parade’s End had me worried I’d need to load up on Adderall ahead of time.

The five-part BBC-HBO miniseries billed as “spanning from the Edwardian era to the chaos and destructions of World War I” stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Christopher Tietjens—a man so good, he frustrates everyone around him to the point of madness.

[one_half][quote type=”center”]The five-part BBC-HBO miniseries billed as “spanning from the Edwardian era to the chaos and destructions of World War I” stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Christopher Tietjens—a man so good, he frustrates everyone around him to the point of madness.[/quote][/one_half]

And I mean just about everyone, whether it’s government officials frustrated that he won’t tweak the numbers, his wife (played by Rebecca Hall) he married because it was the right thing to do, or even the woman everyone is convinced must be his mistress—a young suffragette Valentine Wannop, played by Adelaide Clemens (who you may remember as Catherine from The Great Gatsby.)

To a certain degree, this even extends to the viewers. Tietjens understands the upcoming conflict that will ensnarl most of Europe in the next few years with a thoroughness that likely comes from narrative hindsight.

The best way to define Tietjens is he’s the reverse Walter White. While viewers find themselves rooting for someone who should by all means be a villain in Breaking Bad, I found myself becoming more and more frustrated with Tietjens’ stoic goody-goodiness. The fact that between Ford Madox Ford’s original 1920s novels and this production a character was crafted to create this much frustration is a testament to how good this is.

Following his journey from proper member of the social hufflebruffle to the foxholes of World War I is like watching a square peg try to fit in a round hole, only to have both become squircles.

I thoroughly enjoyed watching this miniseries, especially toward the latter parts. For people who aren’t into the usual pomp and circumstance of Victorian/Edwardian England, hang in there. It’ll be worth it by the end.

But how to watch it?

Do you have HBOGO? Then don’t bother with the DVD release. You’re just paying to have it on disc with zero special features.

The Blu-Ray does promise an NPR interview with writer Tom Stoppard, which might be worth it for Shakespeare In Love fans.

If you don’t already have HBO, then the $25 being asked for on Amazon right now is a very fair price for something that will keep you engaged for five hours.

As a side suggestion for a very Benedict Cumberbatch weekend, pick this up, along with Star Trek Into Darkness and then get caught up on Sherlock on Netflix before season 3 starts, eventually.