Legislature needs to be accountable for its spending
The state Assembly and Senate have been dragging their feet about releasing records of their members’ spending. The body usually releases once-a-year figures in November for the previous year. Under pressure, the Legislature has released some up-to-date figures, but not others.
The record release came under pressure from the Los Angeles Times and the Sacramento Bee, which filed suit against the Assembly after it refused to release current office records. The Senate, which had received a similar request, complied by releasing data, too.
The records are significant because they show, member by member, what is being spent. We’re not talking chump change here. For the eight months ending July 31, 2011, the highest spender in the Assembly, according to the released information, is Anthony Portantino, a Democrat from La Canada Flintridge, at $297,580. That pales beside the highest Senate spender, Alan Lowenthal, a Democrat from Long Beach, at $789,020.
But member totals don’t tell the whole story. Other expenses are broken out separately: Assembly Speaker John Perez, in addition to $225,939 in member expenses, has $373,206 in speaker’s office expense. On top of that, the Democratic Caucus, which Perez leads, spends $6.7 million. Members can get more for serving on or chairing various committees. Collectively, the two bodies have $256 million to spend.
Our assemblyman, Dan Logue, had $331,381.54 in base expenditures for the period Dec. 1, 2009, through Nov. 30, 2010. For the eight months from Dec. 1, 2010, through July 31, 2011, he spent $227,718.48. Currently, Logue serves as chief Republican whip, an office that carries its own budget. Plumas County’s state Sen. Ted Gaines has spent $416,151.40 in base expenditures for the eight months from Dec. 1, 2010, through July 31, 2011. Previously, he served in the state Assembly, where he spent $318,107.42 from Dec. 1, 2009, through Nov. 30, 2010. These totals do not include expenses for any committee work the two men might do or leadership roles they might fill.
When the amounts are this high, the public deserves to know how much is being spent and what it is being spent on. Spending categories include staff salaries, in- and out-of-state travel, office equipment, car leases, district office rent and communications, among others.
The issue came to a head last month when Portantino contended his budget had been cut in retaliation for being the only Democrat to vote against this year’s budget. To prove his allegation, he filed a Public Records Act request for the current office budgets of all Assembly members. The Assembly declined, claiming that the state Legislative Open Records Act exempts correspondence, notes, memoranda and preliminary drafts from disclosure. Media outlets jumped on the issue and made their own requests.
Because there are so many holes, the release of records has been hailed as a weasel attempt by the Legislature to deflect criticism. “It sounds to me like they’re trying to put out enough information to give the appearance that they’re being candid and transparent, while holding on to the information that is actually important and sensitive,” Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, a free-speech advocacy group, told the Sacramento Bee.
We applaud Portantino, first, for not letting Democratic leadership bully him for his vote. Secondly, we support his efforts for full and accurate disclosure of member budgets, including monthly tally sheets showing whether members are over, under or on budget.
The mishmash of released records begs the question: What is the Legislature trying to hide? If the public knew just how much our elected officials were spending and how they were spending it, might we demand that they take the kinds of cuts that are all too familiar to the rest of us?
You can view the records online at senate.ca.gov/whatsnew by clicking on “Senate Expenditure Reports” and at assembly.ca.gov by clicking on “Assembly Expenditure Reports” in the left-hand display box.