SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California Assembly leaders control a large annual operations budget that they regularly tap into boost services of their choosing without a single hearing or vote.
They defend the practice as a responsible way to plug funding gaps for worthy causes, but government watchdogs warn that such spending has little oversight and a high potential for abuse.
“This allows one person to have complete power of the purse strings,” Jessica Levinson, a government ethics expert at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said.
Money for state-funded programs that do everything from providing meals to the elderly to helping poor people pay for childcare typically comes from the state budget after a relentless series of debates and votes.
But by tapping the Assembly annual operations budget, which provides about $150 million to hire aides, rent offices and pay other expenses, speakers don’t always have to play by those rules.
Under a system voters approved in 1990, California Senate and Assembly leaders control their body’s operations budgets. Records show that the Senate budget has been tied up by the expense of running the chamber.
But since the recession, Assembly leaders have sent tens of millions of dollars to hand-picked programs. According to expenditure reports reviewed by The Associated Press, Assembly speakers Karen Bass, John Perez and Toni Atkins, all Democrats, have spent a total of $115 million on select programs between 2008 and 2014.
Critics say this could amount to a slush fund that allows lawmakers to reward allies or curry favor with opponents.
Assembly leaders insist that’s not the case and say part of the reason they make such outlays is to maintain their funding, since the size of the operations budget is tied to a use-it-or-lose-it formula designed to keep taxpayers from overspending.
The programs that benefit rarely generate controversy: The Museum of Tolerance got $2 million to support diverse and inclusive schools last year; Arts education grants received $2 million in 2013; and a women’s rights commission, led by actress Geena Davis, picked up $150,000 three years ago.
“The alternative is the Assembly could spend money on itself and give itself higher salaries or more staff,” Steve Boilard, a former state legislative analyst, said.
Still, recognizing the potential for abuse, former Democratic Assemblyman Anthony Portantino introduced legislation three years ago that would have limited the fund to legislative business and returned unspent money to the treasury.
The bill never got a hearing.
Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins acknowledges that she would prefer programs and services receive state money through normal processes, and she says she’s careful to prop up services with wide support.
“There are a lot of pet projects I would like to fund, of course, but it’s not my style,” the San Diego Democrat said. “It is good to have flexibility because sometimes crises happen, and it affects our constituents.”
Atkins is in her first year as speaker. Aside from the millions she steered toward the Museum of Tolerance, she approved $625,000 to help National Guard veterans find work and $30,000 to train students to help roll out federal health care reform.
The practice of diverting operations budget funds this way took hold under former speaker Karen Bass during the height of the recession, which decimated services with severe budget cuts. She saw it as a way to maintain funds for important programs and an appropriate way to allocate taxpayer dollars under her control. “We were just so desperate to deal with the crisis,” the second-term U.S. representative said Friday.
Her successor, John Perez, said last month that such spending promoted frugality and allowed him “to save programs that would have otherwise been killed.”
Still, opponents say such unchecked spending of taxpayer dollars goes against the foundation of the American political model and gives the party in power the means to reinforce their clout.
Labor research centers, for example, received $2 million last year to plug budget cuts made under Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Those centers, which are also funded by unions and advocacy groups, frequently issue research that supports Democratic legislators’ priorities to expand wages and benefits for workers.
Douglas Johnson, a state government expert at Claremont McKenna College, thinks Assembly speakers have found a way to game the system, and he thinks the practice should stop regardless of what programs receive funding.
“These causes may be great and very worthy of the money,” he said. “But if so, they should be able to get the money through the normal grant process.”
Below is a list of recipients of Assembly speaker funding since 2008:
— Department of Forestry and Fire Protection: $29,860,000
— Department of Education: $27,570,000
— Employment Development Department: $13,160,000
— Department of Parks and Recreation: $11,741,909
— University of California Regents: $6,705,000
— Department of Aging: $5,400,000
— California State University: $4,730,000
— California Military Department: $3,595,435
— California Community Colleges: $2,000,000
— Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development: $2,000,000
— California Arts Council: $2,000,000
— California Department of Veterans Affairs: $1,500,000
— California Conservation Corps: $1,361,000
— Secretary of State: $1,200,000
— Department of Social Services: $1,000,000
— U.S. Patent and Trademark Office: $500,000
— State Authorized Risk Assessment Tool for Sex Offenders Review Committee: $250,000
— Office of Emergency Services: $250,000
— Department of Veterans Affairs: $220,000
— California Commission on the Status of Women: $150,000
— California Health Benefit Exchange: $30,000