SACRAMENTO — In a nod to the state's fiscal health and his own fabulous wealth, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declines his $206,500 salary. When it comes to the compensation of his aides, however, the governor is far less frugal.

Since taking office more than three years ago, Schwarzenegger has broken with tradition by allowing top aides to moonlight on campaigns, collecting salaries from public and private interests simultaneously. He also has boosted the ranks of staffers earning $100,000 or more of taxpayer money. And the man who vowed to shake up politics as usual has continued the age-old practice of rewarding campaign aides, many of them in their 20s, with well-paid state jobs.

A man who credits his Kennedy in-laws with nurturing his sense of public service, Schwarzenegger thinks compensating aides well is a way to "attract the best and the brightest," said his press secretary, Aaron McLear.The governor's staffers consider it "an honor to work for this governor and to serve the people of California."

But some political scientists and ethicists fret that the governor, accustomed to Hollywood pay scales, sends conflicting messages about public service. They're concerned his actions may undermine long-held practices and traditions that have ennobled the calling:

-Government staff generally eschew working on state and campaign payrolls simultaneously, for fear that it could appear their full effort isn't focused on the public's interests.

-Public servants are paid modestly, to safeguard taxpayer dollars. Their reward is in personal satisfaction, generous benefits and the opportunity to earn more in the private sector later.

-Young state workers, in particular, toil for a pittance in exchange for valuable experience and connections.

Undoubtedly, exceptions to some of those rules have existed in recent administrations. But they're particularly prevalent under Schwarzenegger. As governor, he has wide latitude to set employee salaries, so long as they fit into his overall office budget, which must be approved by the Legislature.

There is a nationwide "decline in the ethos that public service trumps the material advantages of the private sector," especially as the gap widens between public and private wages, said Bruce Cain, who directs the Institute of Governmental Studies at University of California, Berkeley.

"Arnold as usual not only exemplifies, but also magnifies, whatever a trend is," Cain said.

The practice that has startled observers most is moonlighting by top administration aides. It's legal, so long as campaign work is done during non-work hours, but generally frowned upon.

State staffers typically take leaves of absence if they're working extensively on campaigns. Former Gov. Gray Davis forbade his state aides from moonlighting.

Last year, Schwarzenegger Chief of Staff Susan Kennedy earned more from campaign coffers filled with corporate contributions — $167,500 — than she received from her state salary of $131,412. (Because Kennedy went off the state payroll for about a month, she actually earned $121,506.)

Schwarzenegger communications director Adam Mendelsohn received

$87,666 for his efforts on the governor's re-election and inaugural celebration, beyond his $123,252 state salary. Personal assistant Clay Russell earned $72,000 on campaign work, in addition to his

$75,000 state salary. Senior Adviser Daniel Zingale received a $50,000 campaign bonus, aside from his $123,252 salary.

"They worked long hours on their state jobs," said spokesman McLear, speaking on behalf of the senior aides. "And on nights and weekends, they would go and work on the campaign."

The aides filed monthly time cards for the state. They weren't required to tally hours worked on the campaign.

That's "very troubling" to Judy Nadler, a senior fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. "The public doesn't actually know when you're on the meter and when you're not."

The governor has defended the arrangement, saying that aides are not paid with campaign donations from outside sources, but rather from contributions made by Schwarzenegger to himself. McLear said "we don't anticipate" paying staffers from campaign coffers again, but he did not categorically rule it out.

On the state side, Schwarzenegger also has boosted salaries.

In January 2005, 24 employees of the governor's staff earned $100,000 or more, according to records kept by the controller's office. A year later, 28 did. At the start of this year, 35 employees, or roughly one in five governor's office employees, earned six figures. And 21 aides made between $90,204 and $99,504.

Schwarzenegger's first chief of staff, Pat Clarey, was known as tight-fisted on salaries, especially as Schwarzenegger was elected to remedy a huge deficit. Current aides take a different tack.

"What they're trying to do is do more with less people," said McLear, who says all salary adjustments are "budget-neutral." That is, they're offset by leaving some positions vacant. Schwarzenegger's refusal of his own six-figure salary also frees up cash for others.

"That allows us to pay the salaries we need to attract the best and brightest."

McLear also stresses that "many people on the governor's staff could be making two or three times more" elsewhere.

Governor's office staffers are due to receive raises this year, too. It's unclear how big they'll be and who will get them. Given financial — and political — considerations, the raises are unlikely to be granted before a new state budget is adopted later this summer.

By law, the chief of staff's salary cannot exceed that of the highest paid cabinet secretary, currently $225,000. Everyone else could theoretically earn as much as directors of big state departments, or $169,500.

Additionally, the governor has continued the longstanding practice of rewarding campaign aides with state jobs or granting them big raises when they return to state service. More than 20 former campaign staffers now work on the state payroll, including several 20-somethings earning $70,000 or more.

Former publicist Lisa Page was 26 when she got her first state job — deputy communications director — earning $85,000. Page served the governor's campaign as a senior adviser for communications.

Jeffrey Wyly was also 26 when he was appointed to a $75,000 job as an assistant secretary of the state labor agency. That's a 37 percent raise from what he earned working in the labor agency until last May, $54,696.

Another former campaign aide, 25, became a deputy director of the state lottery ($72,500). A 28-year-old is an assistant communications director in the governor's office ($77,682).

No one doubts the deputies' skills, but the salaries have floored people inside and outside the administration.

Senior aides reasonably can argue that their skills would fetch far more in the business world, said one Schwarzenegger loyalist, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of antagonizing the governor. As for younger staffers, "it's not as if the salaries are comparable to what they could be making outside, doing something else."

The new hires are all "outstanding workers" on-call to the governor around the clock, said McLear, who spoke on their behalf. He maintains that they could, in fact, make more elsewhere.

Schwarzenegger "saw a lot of these folks, up close and personal, in the campaign," he said. "And he wanted to make sure we had the cream of the crop working to implement his vision."

Nonetheless, the overall trend worries some outsiders.

"Money is not the issue when you go to work for the state of California because you're working for the people," said Bill Whalen of Stanford's Hoover Institution and a former staffer to Gov. Pete Wilson. "If you want to be a capitalist, work for the private sector."

Contact MediaNews staff writer Kate Folmar at (916) 441-4602.