California Legislature's 'select committees' cost a lot with little accountability

Published: Sunday, Aug. 12, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Sunday, Aug. 12, 2012 - 8:48 am

California's Senate Select Committee on International Business Trade is staffed with three employees whose combined salaries cost taxpayers more than $170,000 a year.

It hasn't met even once in the past two years, however, and the only member is its chairman, Democratic Sen. Ron Calderon of Montebello.

The trade panel is one of more than two dozen Senate study committees whose staff costs exceed $5 million annually.

The committees are created to tackle key issues – renewable energy, college admissions, economic competitiveness – but Senate leaders acknowledge their rules do not set performance standards or require work to be documented. No breakdown of staffing or spending for each committee is posted.

In practice, dozens of employees assigned to work with the committees end up serving largely as personal staff for the legislators – all members of the Democratic majority – who chair the panels. They work as press secretaries, legislative consultants or other personal office aides.

The Assembly spends far less on select committees, less than $500,000 annually, but it has its own system for bolstering Democratic office staff through other committee funds: Its policy committees bankroll dozens of personal aides for the panels' chairmen, The Bee reported last year.

By assigning 58 aides to individual senators to assist with select committees, the Senate is able to publicly report relatively equal spending for the offices of lawmakers of both parties, yet still give many Democrats additional staff.

Money allocated to each Senate panel varies widely, records show. The Select Committee on California's Horse Racing Industry has three employees, for example. The Select Committee on California Job Creation and Retention has just one.

"If there's a legitimate purpose and people are actually getting together and working on advancing policy, that's fine," said Sen. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale. "But there are a lot of select committees out there that don't do a lot."

The Bee reviewed for 2011 and 2012 all Senate Daily Files, which notify the public of the chamber's activities, to determine how often select committees have met. It also submitted a public records request to obtain a breakdown of staff assigned to each panel.

Of 27 Senate select committees assigned at least one paid employee for this two-year legislative session, three have no members except the chairman. Fourteen have not held a single meeting in 2011 or 2012.

Of the remaining 13 select committees receiving staff funding, six have met once, three have met twice, and four have met three times in the past two years.

Steinberg defends system

In an era of state budget crisis, the Senate's multimillion-dollar spending on select committees represents spending with little public accountability.

The effectiveness of Senate select committees is not audited and, in many cases, the chamber's website for each select committee does not list the date of its last meeting or any legislation discussed.

Senate rules give select committees various "powers and duties," including that of reporting "findings and recommendations" from "time to time." The provision appears to be routinely ignored, as only a handful of the Senate's 42 select committees have complied thus far in 2011-12.

"Look," said Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, "if you're asking me if every select committee is put to good and productive use, and if there's a product, I'm sure it varies from year to year and member to member."

The system predates Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, but he defended it as one that gives lawmakers time and manpower to study an issue outside the regular committee structure, where hundreds of bills are acted upon.

"The real purpose of select committees is to allow members with an interest in a particular subject to publicly explore that matter without having the time pressure of pushing what might be an imperfect bill," Steinberg said.

"One of the first lessons I learned as a legislator is that if you want to be successful, pick an issue or two that you really care about and make it your focus," he said. "Don't rush to introduce a bunch of legislation, but study it, know what you want to do."

Trip to China cited

Select committees tout some Capitol successes in spotlighting issues they have been assigned to study, which in the past two years have included energy efficiency, privacy, college admissions, high-speed rail and economic competitiveness.

Legislation tied to select committees has included measures to expand standards for notifying victims when identity data are breached and to create new financing options for energy-efficient projects.

Though Calderon's international trade panel has no members and has not met the past two years, the committee cites as an achievement his taking a fact-finding trip to China this year to study high-speed rail.

Recent results include Steinberg's Senate Bill 946, signed into law last year to require insurers to cover certain therapy for autistic children. The bill was crafted after hearings by the Select Committee on Autism and Related Disorders, which Steinberg chairs.

The Rules Committee, which Steinberg also chairs, decides which senators receive select committees along with additional aides. The system provides him with significant leverage for twisting arms on tough floor votes.

Sen. Sam Blakeslee, for example, was tapped by Steinberg in late 2010 to chair a committee on budget recovery and reform. But when the San Luis Obispo Republican and the Senate leader did not see eye-to-eye on budget issues in early 2011, the Rules Committee nixed Blakeslee's committee before its formal creation. Steinberg doesn't dispute the scenario involving Blakeslee, who ultimately was allowed to retain one aide for use in his office.

Senators' office websites list numerous employees serving in personal staff positions, from press secretary to legislative director, even though other Senate records show them as being paid to staff select committees.

Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, for example, lists one such aide as her district representative. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, lists a select committee employee as his press secretary. Sen. Curren Price, D-Los Angeles, reports that a committee aide is his office manager.

No Senate rule is violated by using select committee members as office staff – or vice versa. Chairs are given discretion to run their committee and their office as they see fit, often integrating the two by assigning dual roles.

New rules don't apply

Not every Senate select committee tackles a single problem and then disbands. Panels focusing on the wine industry and horse racing, both powerful Capitol interests, have existed for many years. Taxpayers have paid $2.9 million and $2.3 million, respectively, to run the two committees over the past decade.

Asked about the horse racing panel's work product this year, Senate officials pointed to bills by the committee chairman, Democrat Rod Wright of Inglewood, that could be a boon to racetracks by allowing them to host Internet poker and to accept bets on sporting events.

Last year, the Senate adopted rules designed to provide more accountability for select committees. They require potential chairmen to file a written description of the topic to be addressed, work plan, timetable, staffing needs and anticipated hearings and work product.

The new rules didn't apply, however, to 35 select committees created one week earlier. Those committees represented nearly the entire slate for 2011 and 2012.

Steinberg said the Senate was already preparing to make appointments when the suggestion to tighten the process was made.

Some of Steinberg's key lieutenants fared well in the assignment of select committee aides, as did moderates whose votes he is likely to need on tax or fee bills requiring a two-thirds supermajority vote.

Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, whom Steinberg defeated to secure his leadership post, topped the list with five select committee aides. Tied at four apiece were Democrats Wright, Leno, Simitian, Lois Wolk of Davis and Lou Correa of Santa Ana.

Steinberg said he expects a written summary from select committees by year's end. The Senate does not require such a document, but the house rule passed last year says the Rules Committee shall consider whether a select committee met its objectives before extending it for two years.

"I won't approve the continuation of select committees if they haven't shown some work product," he said.

'A closed, secret society'

The two-year legislative session does not end until December, so time remains for select committees that have not met to do so, Steinberg said.

Until last year, Senate staff rosters provided a breakdown of select committee staffing, including which senator each aide was assigned to and salary costs for each panel. The Senate now lumps the 58 aides together under an umbrella designation, "general research committee."

Steinberg said the change is meant to provide a more accurate accounting because the aides tend to have multiple Capitol duties.

By designating more than $5 million of labor costs as "general research," however, the Senate doesn't post a breakdown of money spent for each select committee. The Bee obtained details under a Public Records Act request.

The wine panel, for example, reported spending $216,000 to $395,000 each year in the decade that ended in 2010. But after moving its staff costs to "general research," it listed no expenses in 2011 and only $18,021 through May 31 this year.

Former GOP Assemblyman Chuck DeVore said the switch shortchanges the public.

"It's the people's house, and the people have a right to know how much these staffers are getting paid, for whom they're working, and what sort of work they're doing," said DeVore, now a senior fellow for fiscal policy at Texas Public Policy Foundation.

Former Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla, a Pittsburg Democrat, said state lawmakers would be up in arms if local government designated its personnel only as "city employees," not saying where they were deployed.

"The Legislature deliberately places itself in a position to be criticized for its hypocrisy on these kinds of issues," he said. "It's a closed, secret society. Even the members don't know how it works."

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Jim Sanders



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