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Assembly remains opaque, even after losing legal battle

FinanceBudgets and BudgetingJustice SystemKristin OlsenAnthony J. Portantino

Calls for increased transparency of state Assembly budgets and spending have failed to gain traction at the state capitol this year, even after lawmakers lost a lawsuit requiring that the information be made public.

In December 2011 the Los Angeles Times — parent company of this newspaper — and the Sacramento Bee won a lawsuit requiring Assembly leaders to release budget records for individual state representatives, policy committees and party caucuses. The records showed members of both parties routinely use caucus and committee funds to supplement their personal budgets, and observers said party politics often trump policy-making when the funds are portioned out.

But in April, Democrats on the Assembly Rules Committee killed legislation by Assemblyman Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge) that would have authorized the California State Controller's Office to conduct performance audits over the Assembly's $146 million in annual spending.

A week earlier, Democrats on the Elections and Redistricting Committee buried a bill by state Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen (R-Modesto) that would streamline budget records and make them public on a monthly basis.

John Vigna, spokesman for Assembly Speaker John Pérez (D-Los Angeles), said both bills died due to legal flaws, not their intent. Olsen's bill would have circumvented the Assembly's regular rulemaking process and Portantino's would have generated a conflict of interest between the Legislature and controller, Vigna said.

“When we write [the controller's] budget, how can he possibly be independent? It gets us further away from the separation of powers,” he added. .

Portantino said he believes lawmakers simply don't want the oversight, and the Assembly learned nothing from losing the open-records lawsuit.

“The Assembly spends taxpayer money to defend bad habits, and when we lose, we go right back to those habits because we think no one is going to notice,” he said.

State leaders spent about $200,000 fighting disclosure of the budget records, including legal fees paid to the newspapers, said Vigna.

As for Olsen's legislation, Vigna said, “Any member is free to suggest rules changes in December when we reconvene, and if they can convince 41 members, the rules will be changed.”

Olsen, whose proposal also called for all bills to be made public 72 hours before a vote, said legislation is necessary to force the Assembly to abide by its own rules, as existing bill notice requirements are routinely suspended and the budget records forced into public view by the lawsuit are confusing.

“I wanted to place my budget online in a way that was user-friendly and clear, but we had to take information from four different documents and combine them into one,” said Olsen, who plans to reintroduce elements of her bill next year.

Phillip Ung, policy advocate for California Common Cause, a government accountability group that supported Olsen's bill, said he believes the Assembly should offer more budget information to the public.

“The internal budgets that were disclosed are crafted in a way that only gives minimal transparency,” said Ung. “Legislative reform is incredibly wonky … but it does matter if the rules aren't drafted in a way that promotes good governance."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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