Budget Records Hide Lawmakers’ Spending
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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) – The Assembly this month released budget figures that should have shined a light on lawmakers’ spending, after a formal request for them from a legislator who is embroiled in a feud with the Democratic leadership over his office budget.
Instead, the documents offer an incomplete and at times contradictory picture. For example, they show some rank-and-file Republican lawmakers — in the minority party — with more lavish budgets than the Assembly speaker or the Democratic heads of powerful committees.
The numbers were released in response to a request from Assemblyman Anthony Portantino, D-La Canada-Flintridge, who is feuding with Assembly Speaker John Perez. He says Perez, a fellow Democrat, slashed Portantino’s office budget when he refused to vote for the state budget earlier this summer. Perez says Portantino was overspending, a charge Portantino denies.
The Assembly Rules Committee, which oversees such records, released dozens of pages of documents to Portantino after he requested them under the Legislative Open Records Act.
They listed lawmaker spending for the year that ended on Nov. 30, 2010. But the committee refused to release lawmakers’ current budgets, saying they are not subject to LORA, the separate law that governs the Legislature, because they include “preliminary drafts, notes or legislative memoranda.”
The committee also released general spending records for the Assembly’s committees and party caucuses, but they did not offer details about the lawmakers who benefited from that spending, making it impossible to form an accurate picture of each lawmaker’s office spending and staff size.
Portantino provided the documents to The Associated Press. The Sacramento Bee and Los Angeles Times have filed a lawsuit in an effort to force public disclosure of lawmakers’ current budgets.
Portantino, who is running for Congress next year, plans to introduce a resolution Monday that would force the Assembly to adopt the budget for each of its 80 members in public and assign funding uniformly so it would not be subject to the whims of legislative leaders. He also wants to require an annual spending audit by the state controller.
“The public should know how the public’s money is being spent,” he said. “That’s fundamental. No gray area.”
According to the publicly released documents, total spending for Assembly lawmakers was $62.7 million for the 12 months ending last November — $24.8 million directly for lawmakers and $37.9 million for caucuses and committees.
The records request Portantino filed last month covered only the state Assembly. In the past, the 40-member state Senate also has made only general, previously published information about lawmaker spending available to the public.
Each lawmaker is given a base budget — about $263,000 this year — but many receive hundreds of thousands of dollars more in so-called “augmentations,” which are lumped together in committee budgets, making it nearly impossible to link spending to individual legislators.
Most members of the Legislature remain unwilling to publicly challenge the numbers that have been released, even as they privately acknowledge they have little relation to actual spending.
The figures released in response to the requests by Portantino and the media show annual office spending for those in the Assembly through the end of November ranging from $224,439 for then-Assemblyman Juan Arambula, a Central Valley Democrat-turned-independent, to $370,746 for then-Assemblyman Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles, now a state senator.
Not shown are the hundreds of thousands of dollars in augmentations lawmakers receive for committee assignments and party leadership posts.
“The budget information released tells a very incomplete story and only serves to obfuscate rather than inform,” said de Leon’s communications director, Greg Hayes. “What someone should really be asking is, `Where are all the missing budget puzzle pieces?”‘
For example, Perez’s total spending on staff salaries in 2010 is listed as $228,871, yet his chief of staff, Sarah Ramirez Giroux, alone makes more than $190,000 a year.
His spokeswoman, Robin Swanson, declined comment, citing the legal challenge.
Democrats who are the majority in both houses generally receive the most generous budgets, but both parties spend liberally from their caucus budgets — $9.2 million for Democrats in 2010 and $7.5 million for Republicans.
Assembly Minority Leader Connie Conway, R-Tulare, also seemed unwilling to question the method by which lawmakers’ budgets are adopted or released.
She said in a written statement that Californians deserve to know how their tax dollars are spent, but her office would not comment about whether individual lawmakers should be allowed to release their office budgets.
“Ultimately, that is not up to an individual member’s office to decide,” said Conway’s spokeswoman, Sabrina Lockhart.
She said Conway would have to obtain the spending information from the rules committee before she could release it.
Some lawmakers are frustrated by the picture the publicly released figures present, appearing to show them as high spenders even though other lawmakers have more staff members with higher salaries.
Based on the documents, Assemblyman Brian Nestande, R-Palm Desert, was the fifth-highest spender in the Legislature last year, putting him above Conway and the Assembly speaker, both of whom have much larger staffs than a rank-and-file lawmaker — especially one in the minority party.
“I’m frugal. I don’t accept a state car. I’m driving right now in my 2005 Yukon with almost 220,000 miles on it. I’ve attempted to be frugal with state money, as we’re going through tough times right now,” Nestande said. “There’s no way my office has spent more money than any Democratic office.”
Nestande said he is willing to release his budget next week. He said he and other GOP Assembly members planned to take up transparency issues when lawmakers return to Sacramento on Monday from their summer recess.
Jon Waldie, chief administrative officer of the Assembly Rules Committee, said the publicly released budget documents are “a reflection of what was asked for by Mr. Portantino’s attorneys.”
He said the spending records the Legislature is required to publish annually reflect “every dime that the lovely Assembly spends.” Those figures, posted every November, are a year old.
Portantino’s staff members have been notified they will be furloughed for six weeks beginning in October because of overspending, a charge Portantino refutes.
When asked why the committee will not simply release Portantino’s current and complete budget to prove its case, Waldie said for the same reason the committee has blocked the release of lawmakers’ daily calendars.
“It’s not an issue at this point that, you know, we’ve done historically and we’re not going to do it now,” he said. “The LORA’s (Legislative Open Records Act) been in effect since 1975. You guys have been getting the same response from us since then.”
“It’s never been an issue where anybody’s ever sat down and said let’s try to work it out,” he added.
While other California government bodies are subject to the state’s public records act, lawmakers passed their own law, which they have used routinely to block the release of information. For example, the Legislature previously refused to release information to The Associated Press showing where lawmakers were flying on taxpayers’ money and for what purpose.
Since becoming speaker in March 2010, Perez has said he supports greater transparency in the Legislature. In a statement to the AP last December, Perez said he would review the Legislative Open Records Act and “other options for increasing transparency in the Legislature.”
He began posting PDF copies of salaries on the Assembly website, and those figures help refute some of the figures in the released budget documents.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)