Dan Walters

Opinion: What really motivated cuts to California’s Senate?

Senate President Pro Temp elect Kevin De Leon, D-Los Angeles on the day he was voted in by colleagues on Monday, June 16, 2014.
Senate President Pro Temp elect Kevin De Leon, D-Los Angeles on the day he was voted in by colleagues on Monday, June 16, 2014. hamezcua@sacbee.com

Kevin de León, the state Senate’s newly minted president pro tem, says that eliminating dozens of legislative staff positions, many by layoffs, was “difficult but fiscally necessary.”

He and his minions say that a squeeze developed when the Senate’s allocation of tax money was virtually frozen for one year under a complex formula adopted by voters 24 years ago.

“These were agonizing decisions, but they were unavoidable and made in the public interest,” de León said in a statement. “This Senate bears an ultimate responsibility to our constituents and to California taxpayers to live within our fiscal means, even when it means doing more with less.”

Few Californians will shed tears about legislative staffers losing their jobs. After all, they are “at will” workers exempt from civil service protections that other public employees enjoy, and the appearance of frugality aligns de León with the public’s mood, as Gov. Jerry Brown has demonstrated.

Notwithstanding all of that, those in and around the Capitol are wondering, with good reason, whether the Senate’s squeeze is as severe as de León would have us believe, or is just a convenient rationale for political housecleaning.

His aides have refused to say exactly, in dollars and cents, what the shortfall may be, hiding behind the Legislature’s semi-exemption from open-records laws that also apply to everyone else. And it’s at least interesting that the Assembly, which faces the same semi-freeze in its financing, is not planning any similar belt-tightening.

It’s reasonable to assume that at the very least, a contributing motive for the staff cuts is to clear away some of those hired under previous regimes, not only previous political leaders such as Darrell Steinberg, who just stepped down as president pro tem, but previous staff administrators.

When the Senate’s revenue picks up, as it surely will, the reductions will give de León and his new secretary of the Senate, Danny Alvarez, room to staff up with their own choices.

All of this is, of course, inside baseball, but one of de León’s reductions, the virtual elimination of the office that writes analyses of bills pending on the Senate floor, will have an impact on the public.

The office was created decades ago to provide nonpartisan, objective and informed analysis – including the interest groups supporting and opposing bills – not only for the senators, but also for the larger public.

Those analyses replaced the partisan bill summaries senators had used and have proved to be far superior to those produced in the Assembly, which are written by committee staffers beholden to their political employers. And now the Senate plans to adopt the Assembly’s system.

Erasing the Senate floor analysis office may save a few dollars, but the real cost will be much less transparency about what the Legislature is doing for – or to – the public in hundreds of bills each year.

Call The Bee’s Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, sacbee.com/dan-walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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