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September 13, 2011 > California Legislature under pressure over secrecy

California Legislature under pressure over secrecy

By Juliet Williams, Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP), Aug 27 - Their decisions affect every Californian, from how much money the neighborhood public school receives to whether their taxes will go up to pay for new roads.

But since 1975, California lawmakers have operated under a shield of secrecy that has allowed them to avoid releasing basic information about how they do the people's business, including how much they spend on office staff, where they fly at taxpayers' expense and how they spend their time outside legislative sessions.

Now that shield is showing signs of cracking. What began as an internal political feud over a budget vote between the powerful Assembly speaker and a fellow Democrat has erupted into a public debate on the Legislature's disclosure rules.

Assemblyman Anthony Portantino claims his office budget was slashed this summer and his staff targeted for layoffs as retribution for being the lone Democrat to vote against the state budget. Assembly Speaker John Perez, who controls lawmakers' staff and office budgets, claims Portantino was overspending.

In an effort to clear his name, Portantino requested copies of all Assembly members' budgets for the past few months, which he said would show not only how much office money lawmakers received, but also how those office budgets rose or fell because of how lawmakers cast their votes.

But the committee that oversees lawmakers' spending said those documents are not public and instead released budget figures that obscure hundreds of millions of dollars in spending. For example, the salaries of many legislative staffers who work for individual lawmakers do not appear on lawmakers' office budgets but rather on the budgets for legislative committees.

There's little information about the hundreds of thousands of dollars leaders from both parties dole out at their own discretion to lawmakers who are in their good graces.

Late Friday, after weeks of pressure from good government groups and news organizations, Assembly and Senate officials released newer documents about lawmakers' budgets, but the documents still appeared to be incomplete.

The tussle over spending records has snowballed into a referendum on the law the Legislature itself approved to govern what it discloses. Some lawmakers are embarrassed by the lack of transparency, and media outlets are pressing the issue.

The debate follows a yearlong series by The Associated Press about the Legislature's secretive ways, and several stories by the AP and San Jose Mercury News that detailed lawmakers' failure to disclose their daily schedules. The Sacramento Bee and Los Angeles Times have filed a lawsuit seeking the same office expenditure records that Portantino was denied.

Meanwhile, GOP lawmakers under pressure from their hometown constituents are breaking ranks with their leadership to release information the Legislature has long sought to keep secret.

At least six Republican lawmakers have made all or parts of their office budgets public in the last two weeks, saying they do not want to be part of the secrecy surrounding the Legislature's $256 million annual budget.

``Here's an opportunity to really restore the faith of the people,'' said Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, R-Twin Peaks, a freshman lawmaker aligned with the tea party who was among the first to release his office budget. ``The people have an absolute right to this information.''

The documents he and some other lawmakers released were more detailed than the official budgets officials released.

In response to the pressure, Perez this month appointed a task force - headed by the same lawmaker in charge of blocking the release of budget documents - to investigate whether the Legislative Open Records Act needs to be updated. She is to report back in January, months after the close of this year's legislative session.

All other state agencies are subject to a separate law, the California Public Records Act, which requires far more disclosure.

``What do they need to look at? It's pretty obvious,'' said Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles.

He said many lawmakers are hoping the scrutiny subsides, including Perez.

``It's a no-win situation for him unless he comes out and has a very strong policy,'' Stern said. ``I think the speaker could look good on this, say `I'm overturning decades of records being kept secret and now we're changing course.'''

In announcing the committee, Perez said both Democratic and Republican lawmakers ``expressed concerns to me about making Assembly expenditures more accessible.''

But the information that has been kept secret under Legislative Open Records Act goes far beyond office expenses.

In the past, the 80-member Assembly and 40-member Senate have refused to reveal calendars that might show lawmakers' meetings with lobbyists and special interest groups, even though all statewide elected officials, including the governor, have released copies of their calendars when requested.

While the Legislature has released general travel expenses, it refuses to release details showing where lawmakers flew at taxpayer expense and for what purpose. Earlier this year, the Legislature would not disclose which lawmakers had applied to carry concealed weapons in the state Capitol - even after all four had publicly identified themselves.

Legislative officials also repeatedly refuse to provide information in electronic format, which would allow reporters and watchdog groups to more easily analyze spending and salaries. In response to a 2009 request by the AP for data on monthly Senate and Assembly salaries, the committees that oversee spending released hundreds of pages of documents but said they could not provide them electronically.

California's policy is part of a patchwork of public records laws at statehouses nationwide. In some states, lawmakers voluntarily open up their calendars to the public and their emails are subject to open records requests. But legislatures in at least six states have approved laws that require less transparency for themselves than is required for governors and state agencies.

Over the decades, as state lawmakers imposed tougher rules requiring disclosure from state agencies, they have continually exempted themselves from the same requirements, citing the privacy needs of lawmakers, constituents and lobbyists with business before the government.

Under the Legislative Open Records Act, they have used broad definitions of privacy and security to deny access to information. When California lawmakers placed the ``Sunshine Amendment'' to the state constitution on the ballot in 2004, they exempted themselves from many of its rules.

Many staffers see no need to deviate from the longstanding policy. The Assembly Rules Committee has not previously released detailed budget documents, said its chief administrative officer, Jon Waldie, earlier this month.

``The LORA's been in effect since 1975. You guys have been getting the same response from us since then,'' he said.

Portantino, who plans to run for Congress next year in a Southern California district, has used the attention over his dustup with the speaker to his own advantage. He is now proposing scrapping the Legislature's exclusive disclosure law and making it subject to the California Public Records Act - a proposal that is unlikely to go far.

``It's time for no more gimmicks, no more tricks. Let's embrace transparency,'' Portantino said. ``The only thing we need to do that is the moral will.''

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