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Tax Funds Polish Assembly Images

Though not directly employed by lawmakers, scores of people on caucus payrolls do political jobs.

March 07, 2004|Nancy Vogel | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — They don't show up on any lawmaker's staff, but Democrats and Republicans in the Assembly spend $17 million of public money each year on workers whose primary jobs are to help them look good to voters.

More than 200 people are listed on the payroll of the Democratic and Republican caucuses, employed by the Legislature in addition to hundreds of other aides who work directly for lawmakers or legislative committees.

Some officials say the caucus staffs perform chores that are essential to keeping them connected with the public they serve. They also acknowledge that much of the staff work is inherently political and that many aides also do election campaigning on the side -- because doing so on state time would be illegal.

Some lawmakers, including new Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles), question whether the caucus staffs have grown too large in an era of budget cuts and shortfalls. On the day Nunez assumed office last month, he threw a spotlight on a major branch of the Democratic caucus -- the Speaker's Office of Member Services -- by firing at least half a dozen workers, some of whom he said had failed to appear for work.

Caucus staff members say they work to raise the profile of Democratic or Republican lawmakers to improve their odds of reelection.

Caucus workers tape interviews with lawmakers to give sound bites to radio and television stations. They print fire safety coloring books for children, with the names of their local lawmakers placed prominently on the front. They analyze bills to help legislators avoid votes that opponents could wield against them in the next election.

They also give advice to Assembly members on answering reporters' questions, print posters and charts for news conferences, design mailers -- such as a list of useful phone numbers for senior citizens -- and often work directly in the Capitol offices of lawmakers, particularly those vulnerable in coming elections.

"We believe it matters if you have Democratic or Republican outcomes," said Rich Zeiger, a consultant to the office of member services. "We fight it out, and we believe the public wants us to do that."

Democrats have by far the largest caucus operation in the Assembly, with 170 people serving 48 lawmakers at a cost of $10 million per year. The 32 Assembly Republicans, at the mercy of majority Democrats for their budget, spend $7 million a year on their caucus, with a staff of 57 people.

The 40-member state Senate also has party caucus operations, but they are much smaller, costing taxpayers slightly more than $2 million a year.

Though they have headquarters in the same building across the street from the Capitol, the Assembly caucus operations are distinct from one another. The Republican group has its own television studio, as well as media advisors and graphic artists to design mailers. But unlike the Democratic staff pool, most of the Republican resources are concentrated on analyzing bills to help members decide how to vote.

Not all lawmakers use the services. Some prefer to do their jobs with the roughly five to 15 people they have working for them in their Sacramento and district offices. Staff size depends upon the generosity of the speaker, who controls each lawmaker's office budget beyond a minimum of $264,000 per year.

But not every lawmaker has a press secretary, and it doesn't make sense for each to hire a graphic artist, caucus leaders say. So the caucuses provide teams of analysts, artists, researchers and media consultants that, they say, costs less than hiring more help for each lawmaker.

"This is by far a more efficient way to do it -- centralized," Zeiger said. Such sophistication is increasingly necessary, he said, as California grows and term limits create a steady influx of novice lawmakers. Such operations are common in Congress, Zeiger said, and Assembly districts -- each with nearly 450,000 people -- are not much smaller than congressional districts, which have 639,000 people.

Some lawmakers say the Democratic caucus in the Assembly has gotten bloated.

Its overall cost has increased more than threefold since 1994, compared with a Republican caucus budget that has slightly more than doubled in the same period.

"There is a sense that it has gotten less than efficient," said Assembly member Joe Canciamilla (D-Pittsburg), who has served in the Legislature since 2000. "It seems like a place where some people get parked."

Nunez had the same impression when he took charge Feb. 9. The employees he fired included Michael Mello, son of former Democratic state Sen. Henry Mello, who had worked for the Assembly since 1987. Nunez also fired former Assembly member Sally Havice, a Democrat from Cerritos, who had been earning nearly $50,000 a year as a part-time education consultant.

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