SACRAMENTO — Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti called Wednesday for state senators to end their controversial practice of meeting behind closed doors to vote themselves benefits, such as life insurance and airline tickets.
Emerging from a closed meeting of the Rules Committee, Roberti said the five-member Senate panel was in basic agreement on a proposed policy that would restrict the committee's ability to approve legislators' benefits in private.
"We've reached an agreement that we will open up our executive (closed) sessions," the Los Angeles Democrat told reporters outside the committee room.
Both houses of the Legislature have come under fire in recent months following newspaper disclosures that legislators met in private and approved at least $1 million in personal benefits for themselves since 1987.
Among the perks approved in closed sessions were $345,000 worth of life insurance for the lawmakers, an estimated $136,000 in increases in legislators' car allowances, an estimated $402,000 in air travel between legislators' districts and the Capitol and at least $121,000 for car phones for Assembly members.
Roberti, chairman of the Rules Committee, said the proposed change in procedures was prompted by "the desire to have openness and the feeling that we can easily stand the light of day."
The committee will formally vote on whether to adopt the rules change at a later meeting, which also will be closed to the public.
Roberti contended that, under his proposal, the Senate would begin operating under rules similar to those that have been imposed by the Legislature on local governments. Under the Ralph M. Brown Act, local government agencies can meet in private only to discuss personnel matters and pending litigation.
Until now, the Senate's rules have allowed the Rules Committee to meet in private to discuss personnel matters, pending litigation, security matters and "internal management" of the Senate.
Under Roberti's plan, most issues that come under the heading of internal management would be held in public sessions, including matters relating to legislators' benefits. Any issue decided in private would be disclosed to the public within 30 days in a written summary of the meeting.
Matters to be discussed in public also would include Senate research contracts, appointment of senators to committees and cost-of-living salary increases for Senate employees.
The Senate leader's proposal would not apply to the Assembly.
"The lesson that has been learned from this issue is that it makes more sense to do anything considered to be sensitive in public, because it gets less flak by doing it in public," said Cliff Berg, executive officer of the Rules Committee.