Charge: Assembly ‘Cooks The Books’
By KATY GRIMES
Assemblyman Anthony Portantino, D-Pasadena, today presented independent research he says proves the California Assembly has manipulated budget numbers and spending patterns to mislead the public.
The battle between Democratic leadership and Portantino heated up last week over Portantino’s accusations of secretive bookkeeping practices by the Assembly. Thursday, Portantino introduced AB 1129 to force the Assembly to comply with the California Public Records Act, making access to Assembly financial and administrative records much easier.
This came after a several months of public battle between Portantino, Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, and Assembly Rules Committee Chairwoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, over what Portantino says is retribution for his vote against the budget in June. Shortly after the budget passage, Portantino was ordered by Skinner to cut his own budget by $67,000 or have his office staff furloughed.
Apparently seeking to embarrass Portantino by making him look as if he was a the biggest spender on Assembly staff salaries, the Assembly Rules Committee one-upped him on Friday when it released current member-by-member spending records. (12/1/10/-7/31/11 — 8 Months)
Portanino was listed at the top of the big spenders.
However, according to Stanford-based California Common Sense research, Portantino’s staff spending is 37th on the list and a far cry from the top spenders.
A Sacramento Bee story found that the data released provided “a cloudy picture of expenditures.” The Bee reported, “Key documents remain undisclosed, and those released make it difficult to see how spending is bolstered for those serving in leadership positions.”
Prior to the Assembly session Monday, Portantino held a press conference to announce the independent study by CACS done over the weekend, which compared Assembly spending on Assembly staff salaries.
CACS, an open-government non-profit organization, found that the Rules Committee data “is awfully suspicious.” CSAS president and Stanford senior Dakin Sloss said, “Our research is a major step forward in understanding how the Assembly is reporting and spending. We find very fishy inconsistencies to say the least.”
After teasing that Stanford students did the math “that the Rules Committee can’t seem to get right,” Portantino said, “Friday’s action makes it clear that Assembly leaders continue to mislead the public on how the Assembly spends taxpayer money.”
“It’s the people’s money,” added Portantino. “The figures released by Assembly leaders make it impossible to determine what lawmakers’ real budgets are and what lawmakers are spending.”
The Stanford researchers worked with Assembly payroll data, available on the Assembly Website, as well as on the expenditure data released Friday. But the data released both under-reports and over-reports Assembly staff and leadership salaries.
According to Sloss, “The data even seems to suggest that the Assembly Rules Committee shifted how millions of dollars to staff are listed, reporting personal staffers as committee, leadership, caucus or overhead staff, to perhaps hide Assembly members’ real spending.”
“Personal staff” are employees who work in the Assembly member’s Capitol or district office.
Sloss said that 40 of 68 Assembly Chiefs of Staff were listed as committee staff, instead of being properly listed as working directly for the Assembly member.
The Assembly expenditure data showed that Portantino spends the largest amount on personal staff. However, according to Sloss, Portantino should be listed 18th for personal staff spending ($201,152) and 37th overall for personal, leadership and committee staff ($371,000).
CACS records show that Assemblyman Ben Hueso, D-Chula Vista, spends the most on personal staff ($299,416); and Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield, D-Van Nuys, spends the most overall for personal, leadership and committee staff salaries ($1.12 million).
After Portantino’s press conference, the Assembly Rules Committee met to consider HR 20 by Portantino, “intended to create openness and transparency” in Assembly public meetings, as well as providing the same or equal budgets for each member of the Assembly.
But before Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, R-Hesperia, could finish presenting a motion supporting HR 20, Assemblyman Hueso offered a substitution motion turning the issue over to the new task force created by Speaker Perez, and led by Skinner.
Perez recently announced he was forming a legislative records task force to be led by Skinner. But it won’t meet until 2012. “Ms. Skinner will have a proposal to unveil by the beginning of next year’s session. I believe that updating our policies to reflect the 21st century world we live in is a vital step toward that effort,” said Perez.
“Members should be embracing transparency. It’s not a radical concept,” Portantino said.
Despite support of the transparency measure by some committee members, the measure was “tabled” on a 6-5 vote, essentially killing it.
However, AB 1129 is still alive, for now. But there is nothing to stop the Rules Committee from refusing to assign it to the committee process. If that happens, it will become a two-year bill.
May 22, 2013