State lawmakers bend to pressure, reveal spending
By ROBERT DIGITALE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
For the first time, the Legislature on Friday released expense records for each individual senator and Assembly member.
The data didn’t contain great revelations on the spending patterns of North Coast legislators. But the release was deemed a historic step forward for those seeking more transparency in government.
“This is really a watershed moment,” said David McCuan, a Sonoma State University political scientist. Even so, he said, the legislative leaders released the data reluctantly in an effort to avoid a state ballot measure that would have forced greater disclosures.
“They went kicking and screaming,” McCuan said. And in the aftermath of the financial scandal in the city of Bell, he said, good government groups are going to keep pushing for more disclosures concerning the workings of the Legislature.
The data, released after 4 p.m. Friday, covers different time periods for state Senate and Assembly members. The Senate data covers Dec. 1, 2009 to Nov. 30, 2010. The Assembly records detail expenses from Dec. 1, 2010, to July 31.
As a result, the release contains no data on the spending of state Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, a legislator for six years. The Assembly data begins about the time she was leaving that body, while the Senate data covers a period that ends before she took office there in January.
Assembly Speaker John Perez and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg made available each lawmaker’s office budgets showing staff salaries, travel expenses and car leases, among other office items. It showed the Assembly, with 80 lawmakers, has spent more than $86 million so far this year, and the Senate, which has 40 lawmakers, has spent $69.3 million so far this year.
However, Assemblyman Anthony Portantino, a Democrat from La Cañada Flintridge who has been at the center of a debate over the accuracy of those office budgets, questioned whether the figures paint an accurate picture of each lawmaker’s spending.
“It’s a continuing effort to mislead the public on how the Assembly spends its money because it’s not releasing the actual spending of the members,” Portantino said. “Frankly, it’s an insult to the taxpayers.”
Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, on Friday evening had yet to view the financial data released for his office. But he said he strongly supported the release.
“I am relieved that they are finally releasing this stuff,” Huffman said. “I’ve been doing my part to urge the Assembly leadership to release this stuff.”
Asked for his views on the issue, Huffman said, “It’s the public’s money. I mean, how can you not have it be public? All our budgets should be available and transparent.”
According to the data, former Sen. Pat Wiggins, a Santa Rosa Democrat, ranked 10th in spending, at $1,055,688.11, among the 40 senators for the 12-month period. Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, ranked 17th at $955,183.64.
In the Assembly, Huffman ranked 52nd of the 80 members, at $208,514.59 for the eight-month period. Assemblyman Wes Chesbro, D-Arcata, ranked 57th, at $203,660.67.
Since lawmakers returned from summer recess last week, many from both parties have been embroiled in an internal debate over what spending records should be made public. Four Republican lawmakers broke ranks with legislative leaders and released their complete office budgets, defying a committee controlled by the Assembly speaker that has said such documents are not public records.
In response to the controversy, Perez asked Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, chairwoman of the rules committee, to lead a task force to modernize how the legislative body maintains and shares information with the public.
The task force will report back by January.
On Friday, Perez said the Assembly didn’t need to wait to post more recent expenditures. The Sacramento Bee and the Los Angeles Times have filed a lawsuit seeking disclosure of up-to-date records.
“I believe that we can take steps now to increase the accessibility of information as to how the Assembly operates,” Perez said in a statement.
(This story contains information from the Associated Press. You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or email@example.com.)