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Calif. Lawmakers Release Updated Office Budgets

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) – Both houses of the state Legislature on Friday released more timely office budgets after weeks of pressure from good government groups and news organizations.

Assembly Speaker John Perez and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg made available each lawmaker’s office budgets showing staff salaries, travel expenses and car leases, among other office items. It showed the Assembly, with 80 lawmakers, has spent more than $86 million so far this year, and the Senate, which has 40 lawmakers, has spent $69.3 million so far this year.

However, Assemblyman Anthony Portantino, a Democrat from La Canada Flintridge who has been at the center of a debate over the accuracy of those office budgets, questions whether the figures paint an accurate picture of each lawmakers’ spending.

“It’s a continuing effort to mislead the public on how the Assembly spends its money because it’s not releasing the actual spending of the members,” Portantino said. “Frankly, it’s an insult to the taxpayers.”

On late Friday afternoon, the Assembly and Senate posted more up-to-date annual office expenditures online. The Assembly put out expenditures for 2010 along with figures for each lawmaker and committee through July 31 of this year.

The Senate posted spending information online only for 2010. But it responded to a request by The Associated Press and The Sacramento Bee for monthly office spending as well as figures through July 31 of this year.

Since lawmakers returned from summer recess last week, many from both parties also have been embroiled in an internal debate over what spending records should be made public. Four Republican lawmakers broke ranks with legislative leaders and released their complete office budgets, defying a committee controlled by the Assembly speaker that has said such documents are not public records.

In response to the controversy, Perez asked Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, chairwoman of the rules committee, to lead a task force to modernize how the legislative body maintains and shares information with the public.

The task force will report back by January.

On Friday, Perez said the Assembly didn’t need to wait to post more recent expenditures. The Bee and the Los Angeles Times have filed a lawsuit seeking disclosure of up-to-date records.

“I believe that we can take steps now to increase the accessibility of information as to how the Assembly operates,” Perez said in a statement.

Phillip Ung, policy advocate for California Common Cause, said Friday’s disclosure should have been the Legislature’s top priority.

“It is unfortunate that it was preceded with unnecessary delays and distractions, but I hope the Legislature embraces transparency as part of the everyday business of serving Californians,” Ung said in a statement.

In 1975, lawmakers wrote the Legislative Open Records Act, a law that allows the Legislature to decide what records it will release or keep secret.

But the release of the Senate and Assembly budgets did not squelch a related controversy stemming from a feud between the speaker and Portantino.

Portantino claims Perez slashed his office allowance when Portantino refused to vote for the state budget. As a result, Portantino’s staff members face a six-week layoff this fall.

Perez accused Portantino of overspending. In response, Portantino sought details of lawmakers’ budgets from the Assembly Rules Committee, which oversees legislative records. The panel, however, said current budget documents are not subject to disclosure because they could include preliminary, unofficial drafts.

Instead, the committee released documents that present an incomplete and at times contradictory picture. The figures show some rank-and-file Republican lawmakers with more lavish budgets than the Assembly speaker or the Democratic heads of powerful committees.

Friday’s documents continued to raise similar questions.

It showed Portantino with the highest Assembly staff salary, having spent $213,263 so far this year. That compares to $160,832 for Perez, who controls the Assembly.

Perez’s chief of staff alone is listed in another staff salary document as making $190,000 a year.

“If these documents were not posted on the Assembly’s web pate, I would think they were an April fool’s joke,” Portantino said.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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