SACRAMENTO — The Senate Rules Committee, meeting behind closed doors, agreed Friday to adopt a new policy of voting in public when they decide to spend taxpayers' money on personal benefits for themselves or their staffs.
In the future, the powerful committee will hold open meetings when discussing such issues as increasing senators' health benefits, buying them insurance or hiking their car allowances, said Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles), who also serves as chairman of the committee.
Roberti said the five-member panel's decision reflected the desire on its part to resolve "what we think are the reasonable concerns of the public and the news media."
Last month, The Times documented how members of both the Senate and the Assembly met in private to vote lawmakers at least $1 million in benefits such as life insurance, airline tickets, car telephones and increases in senators' car allowances.
Some press organizations have called for changes in legislative rules to prohibit the Legislature from making such decisions in private.
The rules change adopted by the Senate will take effect immediately but will not affect the Assembly, which operates under its own rules.
However, members of the Assembly are considering a similar rules change for the lower house, said Bob Connelly, chief administrative officer of the Assembly Rules Committee.
Under the new Senate policy, the Rules Committee will begin meeting in public to vote on:
- Changes in the medical, dental and insurance plans or similar benefits provided to senators and staff members.
- Adjustments to the senators' car allowance, which is set at $450 a month.
- Decisions to award Senate research contracts to outside groups.
- Cost-of-living salary increases for Senate employees.
- The appointment of chairmen and members to the committees of the Senate.
Even with the new policy, however, some decisions involving legislators' perks may still be made behind closed doors.
The Rules Committee will continue meeting in private to discuss questions involving "internal management" of the Senate, Roberti said. However, such closed-door decisions must be disclosed in a written summary within 30 days under the new policy.
Cost of Air Fare
Several years ago, the Rules Committee voted to pay the cost of air fare for weekly trips by senators back to their districts--a decision that has cost at least $134,000 since 1987. Under the new policy, a decision to increase air travel payments could still be made in private but would be made public within a month.
The panel will also keep holding closed sessions on such matters as pending litigation, personnel decisions and security questions, and, under the new policy, will not necessarily have to make its decisions public.
Under this provision, the panel could still vote in private whether to use state money to pay the cost of a lawsuit filed by a member of the Senate. Last year, the committee voted privately to finance a suit filed by four Democratic senators challenging Proposition 73, the campaign finance initiative approved by voters. The committee's decision so far has cost the taxpayers at least $80,000.