Portantino’s Staff Face “Leave Without Pay” As Perez and Assembly Rules Committee Stonewalls On Assembly Operating Budget Detail
On Thursday, all eleven staffers in California State Assemblyman Anthony Portantino’s offices in Sacramento and Pasadena received letters informing them that they face “leave without pay” beginning October 21 and extending through November 30. The issue surrounding the furlough, which would severely curtail key constituent services for his district, exposes a troubling lack of transparency surrounding the Assembly’s operating budget.
The virtual shut-down of AD 44 operations is one result of a punitive action taken by Assembly Speaker John Perez and the State Assembly’s Rules Committee as retribution for several votes of conscience by the independent-minded Portantino. As a punishment for breaking ranks with Perez, the committee reduced Portantino’s budget by $67,000. In response, the assembly member and several news organizations requested detail on how the State Assembly’s $146 million funds are allocated. (Currently, the only publicly available detail on that budget is a list of staff salaries.)
Thus far, the Assembly’s Rules Committee has not answered the request. They’ve continued to stonewall subsequent requests for the same information made by news organizations. Reached by this writer, John Vigna, press secretary to John Perez, said “we have disclosed what is required by the state’s Open Records Act. We will continue to comply with the all the provisions of that act.” Vigna sidestepped the transparency issue by accusing Portantino of “grandstanding” on the broader matter.
In essence, Speaker Perez maintains that the $138 million allocated to operate the assembly offices and its committees is a state secret and that those funds can be directed at his office and that of the Rules Committee, which he tightly controls. Comparison has been aptly made to the “exemptions to disclosure” policy claimed by the city administrators of Bell and Vernon.
Portantino continues to seek disclosure of the Assembly’s operating budget detail. “I stay consistent, “ he says. ”Democrats should support education and transparent, open government.”
Portantino had aroused Perez’ wrath earlier in the year by voting against a prison realignment measure that Portantino said would have increased crime and unfairly burdened Los Angeles County. He broke with the majority in several subsequent votes, most notably by becoming the lone Democrat to oppose the final budget vote in June, a position he took, he says, to voice his objections to the drastic cuts in education funding. His vote was based, he said, on “my strong belief in the importance of public education in California and the folly of further and deeper cuts to higher education in our State.”
Although Assembly Rules Committee chairwoman Nancy Skinner has denied linkage, the timing of the budget reduction and the refusal of Skinner’s office to provide information as to whether cuts were made to any other Assemblymember’s budget would indicate that this is clearly an intimidating effort at enforcing party discipline.
The Assembly Rules Committee’s claim that Portantino is "over budget," is wholly due to the retroactive budget reduction. With an interesting twist of logic, a Rules Committee spokesperson said that Portantino, forced by their retroactive cut, has failed to properly manage his budget, an claim made all the more improbable by Portantino’s record of frugality: he has come in under budget for the past three years.
Portantino reacted to the budget cut with a statement: "This bizarre and unprecedented action is clearly intended to punish me for my vote and to discourage other Assemblymembers from performing their duties in a conscientious manner." He then requested, in line with the State’s Public Records Act, information on how the $138 million operating budget of all 80 state assembly members are allocated and spent.
Meanwhile, Portantino’s constituents— as well as his staff-- face the fall-out from the punitive budget cuts. On any given day, the office receives more than 50 constituent calls requesting assistance or information on matters ranging from unemployment, to specific legislation, to help navigating the often-confusing maze of state agencies. Those calls, handled by four field representatives, will go unanswered if Perez’s draconian disciplinary measure is allowed to stand. Already, the Assembly mail office has begun refusing to post Portantino’s correspondence and has eliminated mileage reimbursement for field representatives.
The ultimate victim of Perez' punishment will be the people who live and work in Assembly District 44. And the wall of secrecy surrounding the State Assembly’s operating budget certainly has no place in state government.