Government: Dueling public-records proposals
The Legislature went back to work Monday, enabling the spat between Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles) and Assemblyman Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge) to enter a new phase. The two men offered dueling proposals for enabling the public to see how the speaker divides up the Assembly's budget, with Pérez punting the issue to a task force and Portantino seeking an immediate rules change that would eliminate the speaker's power to reward or punish members through the budget.
The feud began in July, after the Assembly Rules Committee told Portantino that his budget for the remainder of the year was being slashed, possibly requiring his staff to take a month off without pay. Portantino says it was payback for his vote against the Democrats' budget in June; he was the sole member of his party to join with Republicans in dissent. Pérez and Rules Committee Chairwoman Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) say Portantino was spending too much and ignored repeated warnings to cut back.
Portantino denies this, saying he stayed within the budget the Rules Committee gave him. He called on Skinner and Pérez to disclose how much each Assembly member and committee received, a revelation that would disclose whom the leadership was favoring with larger budgets and whom it was punishing with smaller ones. The Times and the Sacramento Bee also sued to obtain the budget records, which have remained secret.
On Monday, Pérez announced that he was forming a task force, led by Skinner, to study the laws and rules governing the Assembly's budget records. By the beginning of next year, he said, Skinner will have a proposal to "update" those rules. Said the speaker: "How taxpayer dollars are expended is public information, and it is our job to ensure that the public has access to it."
He got that right. But why not just make the office budgets public now? As Pérez noted, all staff salaries are already posted online. That's arguably the most sensitive portion of each office's budget.
Meanwhile, Portantino proposed a change in Assembly rules Monday that would require the Rules Committee to set office budgets in an open public meeting. But that's just for starters. The measure, which Portantino wants the committee to take up at its next meeting Thursday, would require the committee to give all members the same office budget, bar committee funds being spent on a member's office staff and eliminate the speaker's power to allocate funds or office space. It would thus eliminate the speaker's longstanding power to enforce party discipline through the budget.
Good luck with that.
Pérez says some of the right things about the public's right to know, and leaves unsaid some good arguments about a leader's need to be able to push his or her caucus to do the right thing even when it's politically risky. And he may be right about Portantino's spending habits, for all anybody knows (the budgets are secret, after all). Nevertheless, Portantino articulates a clear and compelling good-government case for changing the rules.
"Policy should be judged on its own merit, not by the coercion of the leadership to reward or punish those who are considering policy," he said in an interview Monday. "This is the people's money, the people's offices. Californians should be represented well in an open and fair and transparent process. And what you have now is, the same people who are fighting for secrecy have now decided to put themselves in charge of the task force to be in charge of secrecy."
-- Jon Healey
Photo: Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez, left, and Assemblyman Anthony Portantino -- in happier times. Credit: Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press