The Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance is an important institution. Providing poor mothers with child care so they can work or attend school is smart. Delivering meals to elderly people is humane.
As The Associated Press detailed earlier this week, the past three Assembly speakers agreed. Going back to the crash of 2008, speakers made a practice of acting on their own to funnel some millions allocated for Assembly operations to fund their favorite projects. Worthy though the projects may have been, the method of payment was not.
Once The Associated Press exposed it earlier this week, Speaker Toni Atkins announced she would end the practice. But what a sweet deal it had been. AP reporter Fenit Nirappil identified $115 million that went to the Department of Forestry, Department of Education, state parks, Department of Aging, Commission on the Status of Women and others. Expenditures were as little as $30,000 for an outreach coordinator at the Health Exchange. The University of California received $2 million to fund labor centers at UC Berkeley and UCLA.
Speakers would put out press releases touting their generosity. They could revel in the recipient’s gratitude, build loyalty and feel like big shots. But the speakers used other people’s money – namely, taxpayers – to spread cheer.
They did it because they could. Speakers lead the Assembly Democrats who have a large majority in the lower house, and they gave money to programs Democrats embrace.
Not to state the obvious, but California government is supposed to operate on checks and balances. Governors propose budgets. Legislators pick through the proposals, and vote on their versions. The governor uses his line-item veto authority to delete spending he opposes and signs the spending plan.
But Speakers Karen Bass, John A. Pérez and, until the AP crashed the party, Atkins skirted oversight provided by governors, Department of Finance, budget staffers and the Legislative Analyst on their specific expenditures.
The Assembly contends that Proposition 140, the 1990 initiative that imposed legislative term limits and sought to cut the Assembly budget, created a funding formula that gave the Assembly more money than it could spend on staff salaries and other operations. Rather than hoard it or, better yet, return it to the general fund, speakers used windfalls to make up shortfalls at programs they favor.
The gesture may have seemed nice. It also reflected a misunderstanding of how government is supposed to work. Atkins had the good sense to end it, after a reporter exposed it. As for the supposedly extra money, the Assembly plans to use it for operations in the coming year, including covering rising retiree costs.