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Open the Assembly's books

Californians deserve to know what favors are withheld and doled out through the speaker's operating budget decisions.

August 10, 2011

From where Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles) sits, his decision not to release information on Assembly members' operating budgets may look like good politics. From where the rest of California sits, it's bad public relations, bad public policy and bad government.

Unlike cities, counties and school districts, which are subject to strict budget disclosure rules, the Legislature has given itself the power to keep its numbers secret. This opacity has become an issue now because of a spat between Pérez and Assemblyman Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge). Portantino bucked his speaker and voted against this year's state budget agreement, and claims Pérez is now punishing him by docking his operating budget by $67,000. Pérez says the motive was simply to curb Portantino's profligate spending.

Portantino is now demanding that the Assembly release the budgets for each office, so the public can see who was spending — or overspending — what. Assembly officials argue that those records can be withheld under an exemption in the California Public Records Act for drafts and notes by lawmakers and their staff. The Times and other newspapers are suing to compel the Assembly to release the budgets.

Party discipline in a legislature is perpetually at war with member independence, and one of the most effective ways for a wily speaker to administer discipline — in other words, to persuade his troops to vote the way he wants them to — is to reward allies with the best committees, the largest offices, the most convenient parking spaces, fundraising support at reelection time, and ample operating budgets. Those who go their own way may find themselves working from a closet-sized office in the far reaches of the Capitol — or with an office budget slashed so deeply it forces the offending lawmaker to furlough aides, as Portantino may have to do in October.

That may be a clever way to keep members in line, but the secret manipulations are also a thumb in the eye of California taxpayers, who foot the bills. And perhaps Pérez hasn't noticed, but taxpayers, voters and Californians in general have not had particularly warm feelings toward the Legislature in recent years.

Voters in any given district deserve to know whether they are being locked out of equal representation via the speaker's internal budget decisions. And they deserve to know what internal favors are withheld and doled out, and what effect those favors have on lawmaking.

Pérez and his Democratic allies could take their chances in court. They would be wise, instead, to release the information of their own volition and try to win back a sliver of public trust.

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