The Speaker’s Heavy Hand

Assembly Member Anthony Portantino

Assembly Member Anthony Portantino

An ongoing battle between the powerful Speaker of the California Assembly and a single fellow Democrat known to speak his mind either represents a heavy-handed attempt to enforce party discipline or a prudent exercise in budget management. In either case, the nastiness between Speaker John Perez and Assemblyman Anthony Portantino speaks volumes about the way power is wielded in the era of term limits.

He Said, He Said
We generally don’t hear much about the internal operations of the California State Legislature. Maybe we should. The Speaker of the Assembly is traditionally an awesomely powerful position — especially in the old days when Willie Brown and Jesse Unruh ruled the roost, but increasingly so today, too, with Perez at the helm.

It’s the Speaker’s job to supervise the Assembly members, appointing them to committees and subcommittees, allocating funds to run their staffs and committees, and providing staff and other resources so the members can effectively serve their constituents and conduct California’s business.

These far-reaching powers are exercised through the Assembly Rules Committee. Although average Californians can be heavily affected by the Speaker’s choices, rarely do routine “sausage-making” actions see the light of day.

But recently, a controversy brewing in Sacramento has gotten the attention of the Los Angeles Times, the Sacramento Bee, the Glendale Times, The Pasadena Star-News and the California blogosphere.

The controversy involves Portantino, who says the Speaker has overreached in his attempts to enforce party unity and who accuses Perez and Rules Chair Nancy Skinner (D – Berkeley) of singling him out for excessive budget cuts because of his independent views.

“They’re demanding that I cut $67,000 out of my office budget, which means I’ve either got to lay off four staff members now or see all 11 of my staff furloughed for 40 days starting in October—including a single mother with three kids and no health insurance,” Portantino said this week. “Already, they’ve cut off my mailing privileges and taken away travel reimbursements from my staff.”

If the Speaker were implementing belt-tightening measures across the board, Portantino wouldn’t question the cuts, he maintains.

“But this is not about the money,” Portantino contends. “This is retribution for independent stances I’ve taken on key legislation. As far as I know, I’m the only Democrat whose budget has been slashed this way.”

Perez, Skinner, and their staffs contend that Portantino is the story’s villain, ignoring repeated calls to cut expenses and grandstanding to bring attention to his Congressional race to replace long-time Republican Congressman David Dreier.

Speaker John Perez

Speaker John Perez

Spendthrift or Boy Scout
“Mr. Portantino has proven that he’s either unwilling or unable to balance his budget,” Robin Swanson, Perez’s communications director, told the Sacramento Bee. “I don’t know how that helps you run for Congress that you can’t balance your own office budget.”

In the same article, Skinner said that Portantino has known since April that he needed to tighten his belt and has simply refused calls to do so.

Asked how Portantino had proven that he couldn’t balance his budget, the Speaker’s press secretary, John Vigna, said that last December or January Portantino was told he was spending more than he was allotted.

“He has had the better part of the year to get his house in order,” Vigna said.

The press secretary admitted that Portantino’s alleged overage was, in fact, a forecasted overrun that is predicted to occur in November this year — not yet an actual overrun.Vigna could provide no figures to back up claims that Portantino had mismanaged his budget in past years.

“They say I’ve exceeded my budget, but that’s nonsense,” Portantino responded. “I’m the Boy Scout here. I’m the one who turns down the state car, who doesn’t take a telephone at taxpayer expense, who pays my own parking at the airport, who turned down the pay raise.”

In maintaining that accusations he’s incapable of managing his budget have been hurled in an attempt to tarnish his reputation and have no basis in fact, Portantino presented documents showing that he underspent — not overspent — his budget by over $36,000 last year and over $9,000 the year before. “It’s the same every year I’ve been in the Assembly,” he claims.

Assemblymember Portantino Budget Summary

             2009              2010              2011
Budget $775,744 $694,375 $518,000
Expenditures $766,717 $657,591          Not Available
Balance $9,027 $36,784

“They know I don’t care about office size or perks, so they can’t just stick me in a tiny office as punishment,” he says. “Instead, they’re getting to me by attacking what matters to me the most, my staff and the people in my district.” cont’d on page 2

Published by the LA Progressive on July 27, 2011
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About Dick and Sharon

As a husband and wife team, Sharon Kyle and Dick Price publish several print and online newsletters on political and social justice issues. Sharon serves as Publisher for Dick & Sharon's LA Progressive and Dick serves as Editor.