RANDALL BENTON / Sacramento Bee Staff Photo

Spending figures provided by California legislators don't paint a clear financial picture, a Bee analysis shows.

California Assembly reports on lawmakers' spending misled the public

Published: Thursday, Oct. 6, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013 - 8:16 pm

Assembly records show that Bob Blumenfield spent $150,099 to run his office for the first eight months of this legislative year.

None of his colleagues, in fact, spent more than $297,579, according to budget information Assembly leaders recently made public.

Yet the Woodland Hills Democrat actually spent more than three times that much, because salaries of some of his personal staff were charged to the budget committee he chairs, a Bee analysis shows. Spending reported for other members is similarly misleading.

The Assembly routinely underreports the amount of money used to run legislators' personal offices and overreports the operating costs of committees that do the brunt of the policy work in the house. The practice obscures how the lower house's $146.7 million budget truly is spent at the Capitol and protects legislators from public criticism of their spending.

Chiefs of staff for 40 of 52 Democratic lawmakers, for example, do not count as a member expense in records released to the public.

More than 170 aides bankrolled by committees are not committee staff – they serve as personal office aides to the chairman or chairwoman, The Bee found.

The key issue is not accounting but transparency: Californians pay the tab but have no practical way of determining how much each lawmaker spends to run his or her office.

"The Legislature and its leadership have perfected shell games to an art form," said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

Others say the Assembly's practices are neither new nor unreasonable because duties tend to overlap between committees and legislative offices.

"You're looking for black and white," Assembly administrator Jon Waldie said of job duties. "Black and white doesn't exist in this building."

Speaker John A. Pérez, D-Los Angeles, personally sets internal budgets that vary from member to member, sometimes by hundreds of thousands of dollars. They consist of a base budget of $263,000 plus an augmentation for each Democrat, either for chairing a committee or serving on his leadership team.

Pérez's financial commitments to Assembly members are not discussed openly or voted upon. The Assembly has balked at releasing those member budgets, sparking a lawsuit by The Bee and Los Angeles Times in an attempt to force disclosure.

By comparing committee rosters with the Assembly's 1,200-person staff rosters and this year's expenditure report, released in August in response to a public records request, The Bee has been able to approximate how many personal staff members are bankrolled by committees and the amount of the subsidies.

The bulk of that amount, more than $7.5 million from December through July, has been channeled through committees that handle lawmaking on issues from education to banking to human services.

Eighteen of 30 policy committees pay for as many or more employees tied to their chairman's personal office staff than to their own, The Bee analysis found.

Pérez's subsidies for leadership work provided an additional $2.7 million for key Democrats, ranging from a high through July 31 of $319,941 to Assembly Majority Leader Charles Calderon of Whittier, to a low of $53,770 for Majority Policy Leader Mike Feuer of Los Angeles. The money has been used to hire more than 70 personal office aides, The Bee found.

Every dollar spent to run the Assembly is disclosed in reports generally released 12 months after the end of a legislative year. But "member expenditures" listed in connection with individual lawmakers' names consist largely of dollars spent from their $263,000 base budgets, not augmentations.

Majority controls cash

Put simply, Californians are told to the penny how much an Assembly member spends on postage – Davis Democrat Mariko Yamada paid $1,811.82 through July 31 – but records give no clue when a lawmaker's personal staff is supplemented by hundreds of thousands of dollars in committee funds.

The Bee found, for example, that nearly $250,000 of the $429,190 spent by the Natural Resources Committee through July 31 went to salaries for aides of the chairman, Assemblyman Wes Chesbro, D-Arcata.

Because the Legislature is controlled by Democrats, Republican Assembly members rarely are named to chair committees that would put them in line for significant augmentations. Their $263,000 base budget typically receives some subsidy from the GOP caucus, however, generally in the range of $50,000 to $60,000 per year.

Exceptions to the rule this year included Republicans Cameron Smyth of Santa Clarita, who was named by Pérez to chair the Local Government Committee; and Nathan Fletcher of San Diego, who was selected to lead a select committee on job creation.

Fletcher and Smyth were known to buck their own caucus at times. They cast the only two GOP votes in the Assembly to pass a controversial plan to raise about $1 billion in corporate taxes, mostly from out-of-state companies, and redirect that money toward tax breaks for California businesses and individuals. The plan died in the Senate.

Like others, Fletcher has used committee funds to hire personal staff.

Fletcher's spokeswoman, Amy Thoma, is a former public relations adviser who worked for Republican U.S. Senate candidate Carly Fiorina last fall. Before joining the Capitol payroll in June, she helped Fletcher unveil his candidacy for San Diego mayor in next year's election.

Thoma's $85,000 salary is currently charged to the Utilities and Commerce Committee, of which Fletcher is vice-chair. Fletcher declined to discuss the matter with The Bee.

Sabrina Lockhart, spokeswoman for Assembly GOP leader Connie Conway, said that, by charging personal staff to committee budgets, current expenditure reports "do not tell the full story." She said they obscure costs in ways that make it appear that some rank-and-file Republicans are outspending powerful Democrats.

"We're the minority, and just at face value that doesn't make sense," said Lockhart, adding that the GOP wants Assembly expenditures "presented in a way that's fair and truly shows the public how money is being spent."

Duties said to overlap

After the Assembly was sued to force disclosure, Pérez lawsuit, announced the creation of a task force to study Assembly public records practices.

Waldie, the Assembly administrator, said that lawmakers who chair a policy committee inevitably split time between district and committee functions – and so does their office staff.

Blumenfield said he runs his personal and budget committee staff as a single operation - and has worked hard to create an efficient, integrated operation that he calls "Team Blumenfield."

From chief of staff to field representative, every member of his office staff spends a significant amount of time on committee-related work or answering questions related to the budget, he said.

Tracking and recording how much time is spent each week on budget issues, for each member of his staff, would cost taxpayers more than any benefit they would receive, according to Blumenfield, who has 10 members of his personal staff on committee payroll.

Robin Swanson, spokeswoman for Pérez, said the bottom line is that the Assembly publicly discloses all member and committee spending.

"You know that a member has a staff budget, and you know that a member is chair of a committee – you add A plus B and you get a total budget," she said. "I don't think it's complicated at all."

Assemblyman Anthony Portantino, D-La Canada Flintridge, has accused Pérez of slashing his budget as punishment for casting the lone Democratic vote against the state budget.

Portantino contends that Pérez initially permitted him to retain much the same staff he had last year as chair of the Revenue and Taxation Committee, then switched gears and pulled the rug out from under him after the controversial budget vote. Pérez, through a spokeswoman, has said that Portantino was projected to overspend his budget, necessitating a crackdown in fairness to Assembly colleagues.

Assembly records through July 31 portrayed Portantino as the Assembly's biggest spender among rank-and-file members, not leaders, with an eight-month total of $297,579. The Bee analysis shows that he topped the list only because records do not reflect committee or leadership augmentations.

When adjusted, Assembly records raise Portantino's eight-month total above $380,000, but far less than that of numerous committee chairmen, including Jose Solorio of Santa Ana, $564,958; Mike Feuer of Los Angeles, $555,597; Jared Huffman of San Rafael, $537,758; and Blumenfield, $513,931.

Cut now looks like shift

The use of committee funds to supplement chairmen's personal offices can cloud the impact of Assembly belt tightening.

In May 2009, then-Assembly Speaker Karen Bass reacted to the statewide recession by cutting Assembly members' office budgets by 10 percent, from $292,000 to $263,000.

Cumulatively, more than $1 million was trimmed from office budgets that year, but statistics released 18 months later showed that committee budgets rose by $1.7 million, potentially softening the blow for many Democrats.

The state Senate does not allow policy committee funds to be used for personal staff, said Greg Schmidt, Senate secretary.

The Senate can and does bolster office staffs, however, by appointing key legislators to chair select committees – part-time panels on major policy issues – and delegating aides from a 61-person "general research committee" that costs taxpayers more than $3.3 million annually.

Nearly all of the Senate select committee aides – 59 of 61 – are assigned to Democrats, records show.

Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies, said that voters don't pay much attention to whether more money goes to the Assembly's office or committee staff – both are needed.

"The public cares about the bottom line," Stern said. "Is the Legislature being efficient? Is the Legislature doing legislative business? That's what they care about."

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Jim Sanders



Sacramento Bee Job listing powered by Careerbuilder.com
Quick Job Search
Sacramento Bee Jobs »
Buy
Used Cars
Dealer and private-party ads
Make:

Model:

Price Range:
to
Search within:
miles of ZIP

Advanced Search | 1982 & Older

TODAY'S CIRCULARS