Stem cell agency tone-deaf on salaries

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Even though California faces a budget crisis and the state appears to be sputtering into a recession with home mortgage foreclosures at a record, one state agency thinks its the perfect time to raise salary levels for its top officials a whopping 23 percent.

That’s what the stem cell oversight committee did at this week’s session in Sacramento.  Perhaps the so-called Independent Citizens’ Oversight  Committee lost touch with reality because they were meeting on the stage of the historic Crest Theater, which has hosted performers ranging from Cab Calloway to Kurt Cobain.

The new pay ranges provide for a possible $508,750 top salary for the positions of chairman and president, up from $412,500. A top range of $332,000 was approved for executives at the next level, up from $270,000, with agency’s top two attorneys at $277,500, up from $225,000.

It’s true the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine is outside the regular state budget because it’s funded by $3 billion in bonds authorized by Proposition 71. Nonetheless in a time of serious economic duress, jacking up pay ranges shows a lack of common sense. What are the board members thinking?

At  the meeting the board voted to hire Dr. Marie Csete as Chief Science Officer with a salary of  $310,000. President Alan Trounson makes $490,000.  After 10 months on the job last December General Counsel Tamar Pacher got a raise from $160,00 to $225,000. State Attorney General Jerry Brown only makes $184,301.

By the way, if you want information on the pay of every California state employee by name, check out this user-friendly salary data base maintained by The Sacramento Bee.

Though salary ranges were increased for the positions of chairman and vice chairman, neither Chairman Robert Klein nor Vice Chairman Ed Penhoet have accepted any pay since the agency was founded.  I asked during the public  comment period if the fact that the board acted on ranges for their two positions implied that they were changing their policy.

Klein responded that after five years not taking pay he may have to assess the situation and that it would be up to the board but that he "knows of no such plans at this time."

I want to make it clear that both men are entitled to a fair salary.  The problem is that the buckets of money CIRM throws around on top salaries are too big. Salaries at the stem cell agency should be comparable with what’s paid at the National Institutes of Health, which according to reporter Jim Downing’s story are considerably lower.

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