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.
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.
“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
Money and Power
Portantino represents a mostly wealthy, mostly white district stretching from Pasadena to Glendale to northern LA that has traditionally sent Republicans to Washington and Sacramento. As the single, lonely Democratic voice on the Republican-controlled La Cañada Flintridge City Council early in his political career, Portantino cut his teeth learning to compromise across the aisle, demonstrating a flexibility that helped him get elected to the Assembly in 2006. Hence the independent stance he took with him to Sacramento.
John Perez represents the same overwhelmingly Democratic, light-voting, recent immigrant neighborhoods that once supported former Speaker Fabian Nunez. Instead of experience with the give and take of elective office, Perez's background is in labor organizing, making "solidarity" his watchword.
Little wonder the two men have bumped heads from the start.
“I worked well with past Speakers Fabian Nunez and Karen Bass. They didn’t always agree with me, but I knew I could walk in their offices, look them in the eyes, state my views, and be respected,” Portantino says, though it should be noted that Bass removed him from his coveted Higher Education Committee chairmanship. “That’s not so with Speaker Perez. He wants everyone to do everything his way—100% obedience.”
Last December, Perez called Portantino to tell him that he was taking away his Revenue and Tax Committee chairmanship, which set this year’s budget clash in motion. “He said I was too outspoken and then threatened further measures if I didn’t fall in line."
After voting against the budget and then learning of the severe cut in his budget, Portantino asked to see the budgets of the other 79 members through a public records act request. To date, Portantino says he has not received the records. Shortly after that request was filed, the Pasadena Star-News reported:
The Rules Committee on July 14 denied a Star-News Legislative Open Records Act (LORA) request seeking the spending records of all 52 Democrats in the state Assembly. The denial issued by Rules Committee Administrator John Waldie said the state open records act exempts certain materials, including correspondence and legislative memos from disclosure by the legislature.
"So much for transparency in government," Portantino says.
Principle over Expediency
If the battle really isn’t about the relatively small budget differences, nor his race for Congress, as Portantino posits, where’s the rub?
Portantino contends that Perez, working through Nancy Skinner’s Rules Committee, went after him after he failed to fall in line with the Party’s leadership on legislation involving prison reform, cutting redevelopment agencies, and then in the recent state budget votes.
"You know you're in trouble when a Berkeley activist tells you to sit down and shut up," Portantino says of his run-ins with Skinner.
As one example, Portantino cites his opposition to a prison reform initiative that would have transferred more prisoners to county jails, where they would have been released.
“California has a 70% recidivism rate, one of the worst in the country,” he says. “Why release prisoners without first teaching them a trade like our prisons used to do? That’s just a revolving door that isn’t good for the prisoners and isn’t good for their communities.”
In its place, Portantino has introduced a measure (AB 219 Prison Reform) that would require the Department of Corrections to reduce recidivism by 20% over the next four years—something akin to the stellar parole reforms in San Francisco that got Kamala Harris elected State Attorney General—legislation he thinks will have little chance of advancing against the Speaker’s opposition to anything Portantino might propose.
On the recent budget bill that the Assembly passed only to meet Governor Brown’s veto, Portantino held out for a full public review.
“The Speaker said that we’re done negotiating with the Republicans and we’ll vote on the budget bill tomorrow,” Portantino says. "I asked, what’s the rush?”
“We pass these budget bills without public scrutiny, without adequate legislative review,” Portantino continues. “Once they’re passed, we find all these problems and have to pass new legislation to fix the mistakes.”
"That 500-page prison reform bill we passed in a rush? We've already had five cleanup bills to fix mistakes we made."
But legislator pay was going to end the next day, so the Speaker insisted on a vote, which Portantino voted against. Ironically, the bill passed the Assembly by 10 votes, making Portantino’s demurrer irrelevant legislatively.
In talking with the Glendale News Press, Dan Schnur, director of USC’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, said that although budgets for any member can vary widely and that the Assembly's leaders often make closed-door budgeting decisions, the $67,000 they've dinged Portantino's budget seems extreme:
“[Portantino] would have to be taking office staff on Caribbean cruises to be that far over budget. Not only is this retribution, but it’s the harshest example of this type of payback I’ve ever seen. Usually they just move you to a smaller office and let you stew in a corner,” said Schnur.
“There’s no other plausible explanation: He’s being punished for his budget vote pure and simple, and the leadership is entitled to do that,” Schnur continued. “There’s no rule against it, but it raises questions about depriving members of [Portantino’s] district of the representation to which they’re entitled.”
It’s hard to see how this controversy will help Portantino in his race against long-time incumbent Republican David Dreier’s 26th Congressional District seat, though possibly voters will be attracted to someone willing to take a stance and stick to it.
"I just want to do what's right for my district and my staff," Portantino continues. "A decade ago, you had strong committee chairs who would take charge of their legislation. Now, the Speaker has complete and total control."
Portantino says that many Assembly members are dissatisfied by the rigid, top-down management, but confine their complaints to private grumblings and dare not rally to Portantino's defense.
“I’m a pretty easy-going guy. I get along with most everyone,” Portantino says. “But I’m also a Jersey boy. I’m not going to be bullied.”
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