SACRAMENTO — A run-of-the-mill spat between two lawmakers has escalated into a referendum on government secrecy, exposing the lengths to which the Legislature will go to hide details about how it conducts the people's business.
Accused by Assembly Speaker John A. Perez (D-Los Angeles) of being a profligate spender, Assemblyman Anthony Portantino (D-La Canada Flintridge) last month had his office budget cut and was threatened with suspension of his staff. Portantino said he was being punished as the only Assembly Democrat to vote against the state budget in June, and invited the speaker to prove him wrong by releasing details of lawmakers' office allowances.
That request was denied.
Now several newspapers, including The Times, have gone to court to challenge the Legislature's refusal to turn over records about how leadership doles out taxpayer resources to the rank and file.
The Legislature says those records are privileged.
At the center of the court challenge are legal exemptions lawmakers long ago carved out for themselves so that they would not have to operate with the level of transparency required of almost everyone else in government. The Legislative Open Records Act, government watchdog groups have long complained, effectively shields backroom business from public view.
They see the law's title as a cruel joke.
"It really could be renamed the Public Secrets Act of the California Legislature," said Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition. "It provides very little access."
The law includes nearly a dozen exemptions and makes each chamber's rules committee the arbiter of legislative records. Officials repeatedly have rejected requests for information that would shed light on the legislative process, including the daily calendars of lawmakers and details about taxpayer-financed trips.
"Where a law comes from, and who's involved in influencing it, in what detail is made invisible," said Terry Francke, general counsel for Californians Aware, a group advocating open government.
This month, the Assembly Rules Committee denied multiple requests for the office budgets of all 80 members of the lower house, as well as spending records for legislative committees.
Administrators argued that such records were exempt from disclosure under broad provisions that protect "preliminary drafts, notes or legislative memoranda" and "correspondence of and to individual members of the Legislature and their staff."
At issue in the lawsuit filed Friday in Sacramento County Superior Court is whether even the weak legislative open records law permits that level of secrecy.
Jim Ewert, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Assn., called the committee's rejection a "tortured interpretation" of the law. "I fail to see how [the exemptions] apply to some of the most basic types of information that the public should have -- and that is financial information about how government works," he said.
Tracking specific office spending in a timely manner is virtually impossible. In the state budget, the Legislature's allocation is a single line-item with no detail: $256 million.
Portantino, who plans to introduce legislation compelling the disclosure of lawmakers' office budgets, said that forcing the release of such information "will take a fundamental power away from the inside game: the ability to dole out staff and budget and perks at the whim of the leadership versus any fairness in public policy." Taxpayer money, he said, "shouldn't be a tool the leader has to solidify and concentrate power."
Robin Swanson, a spokeswoman for Perez, denied that Portantino was being punished and said the rules committee had met its obligations under the open-records act. She noted that the Assembly publishes an annual report on Nov. 30 detailing members' spending for the preceding year, in addition to posting staff salaries on its website.
Nevertheless, the Legislature has long preferred secrecy.
In 1968, when lawmakers passed the state's first open-records law, they focused exclusively on local governments and state agencies, explicitly exempting themselves from public disclosure. The decision was a practical one.
"Obviously we didn't put the Legislature in there," said former Assemblyman Bill Bagley, co-author of the California Public Records Act. "It would not have passed."
Seven years later, with the Watergate scandal spurring a national political reform movement, the Legislature followed through with its own open-records law, but not before killing a stronger GOP measure that would have given the public on-demand access to lawmakers' spending.
At the time, Republicans warned that the Legislative Open Records Act was riddled with loopholes that lawmakers would abuse. Open-government advocates say they were right.
"They were very happy to adopt very good rules for everybody else but themselves," said Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies.
Lawmakers have continued to fight changes to the law.
In 2004, an Assembly committee killed a bill that would have required the Legislature to show why information should be exempt from disclosure. That same year, voters approved a state constitutional amendment making access to government meetings and records a civil right.
But in placing the measure on the ballot, the Legislature had excluded itself.