Dec. 20, 2011 — Last week a Sacramento judge tentatively ruled that member-by-member budgets are public documents that must be disclosed.
The assembly, which was named in the lawsuit, has decided not to contest the decision, so the tentative ruling becomes final. Judge Timothy M. Frawley ruled that “the strong public interest in disclosure outweighs any reason for keeping the records secret.”
Members will now have to release their budget and expenditure records as well as records for policy committees, where funds are sometimes used to pay salaries of personal aides.
The records are significant because they show, member by member, what is being spent.
We’re not talking chump change here.
For the eight months ending July 31, 2011, the highest spender in the assembly, according to earlier information, is Anthony Portantino, a Democrat from La Cañada-Flintridge, at $297,580.
That pales beside the highest senate spender, Alan Lowenthal, a Democrat from Long Beach, at $789,020.
But member totals don’t tell the whole story.
Other expenses are broken out separately: Assembly Speaker John Perez, in addition to $225,939 in member expenses, has $373,206 in speaker’s office expense.
On top of that, the Democratic Caucus, which Perez leads, spends $6.7 million.
Members can get more for serving on or chairing various committees. Collectively, the two bodies have $256 million to spend.
The issue came to a head when Portantino contended his budget had been cut in retaliation for being the only Democrat to vote against this year’s budget.
To prove his allegation, he filed a Public Records Act request for the current office budgets of all assembly members.
The assembly declined, claiming that the state Legislative Open Records Act exempts correspondence, notes, memoranda and preliminary drafts from disclosure. (Frawley rejected this argument.)
Media outlets jumped on the issue and made their own requests, which were denied.
The Sacramento Bee and L.A. Times then filed suit. Under that pressure, the assembly released some records, as did the senate.
The legislature usually releases once-a-year figures in November for the previous year.
Because there were so many holes, the release of records was hailed as a weasel attempt by the Legislature to deflect criticism. “It sounds to me like they’re trying to put out enough information to give the appearance that they’re being candid and transparent, while holding on to the information that is actually important and sensitive,” Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, a free-speech advocacy group, told the Sacramento Bee.
The mishmash of released records begged the question: What is the legislature trying to hide? If the public knew just how much our elected officials were spending and how they were spending it, might we demand that they take the kinds of cuts that are all too familiar to the rest of us?
Now, we will be able to answer that question. Once we know how funds were spent, we can keep our elected representatives accountable.
We applaud the Bee and the Times for taking on this important issue and striking a blow for public access to information.
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