Portantino Making Waves, Not Friends

FEB. 24, 2012


Democratic Assemblyman Anthony Portantino isn’t making many friends these days in the Legislature. After a well-publicized battle with Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, over the Assembly’s secretive accounting practices, Portantino has introduced a measure to freeze the pay of California’s highest paid state employees — for the eighth time. But that’s not all. He is also calling for a state audit of the Legislature, and proposing that legislators pay for their own vanity license plates.

Portantino, notorious for forcing Perez to open up the Assembly books and comply with the state-required performance audit of Assembly administrative offices, found himself in a battle last year with his own party’s leadership. But that doesn’t seem to have tempered his agenda.

Freeze! Step Away From The Paycheck

Portantino’s AB 1787 calls for a two-year freeze on state employees who earn more than $100,000. Portantino said  thousands of state employees could and should be subject to the salary and bonus freeze. “It is unacceptable to be giving raises and bonuses when we are still struggling with a budget deficit in the billions and one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation,” Portantino said this week. “We should be making better choices.”

Portantino said that his previous salary freeze bills have been repeatedly killed in the Assembly Appropriations committee. “Over the past four years, my bills on this issue have been held on ‘suspense’ in the Assembly, even though it saves the state money,” Portantino said. “I have reduced the salary amount so the state can save even more money. If President Obama can freeze the salaries of White House employees making $100,000 or more, why can’t we do the same here in California?”

Portantino said that the State Controller reported that more than 3,300 state employees could be affected by the bill, and even more if University of California and California State University employees are included. “The potential savings would be in the tens of millions,” Portantino said. Critical that many university employees, as well as CalPERS money managers, routinely get raises and bonuses, Portantino said that this is an issue the Legislature should be dealing with, but has largely ignored.

Audit The Lawmakers

Portantino also wants the State Conroller to perform an audit of the Legislature.

AB 1887 would require the State Controller to conduct a thorough audit of the state Legislature’s finances for two budget years, fiscal 2012-13 and 2013-14.

In following years, the Joint Rules Committee would hire an independent contractor to perform the audits but under guidelines set by the controller. Under current law, the Joint Rules Committee chooses the auditor, but sets the parameters for the audit.  As Portantino has repeatedly said, the Assembly does not even follow its own rules by not doing annual performance audits.

“This practice has led to large surpluses at a time when the state is facing huge budget shortfalls resulting in cuts to school funding, increased tuition at colleges and universities and decreases in support for aged, blind and disabled Californians,” Portantino pointed out.

What’s really interesting about AB 1887 is that it would require that the Assembly and Senate return any unused funds to the general fund at the end of the legislative year. Then, the money would be earmarked for the Student Aid Commission to use in the Cal Grant program.

“If the Legislature appropriates more money than it needs, let’s help solve this problem by setting a specific agenda for using that surplus and putting in place strict accountability and transparency,” Portantino said.

During the 2011-12 fiscal year, Portantino’s office said that the Assembly and Senate were allocated more than a quarter-billion-dollars to run the state Legislature — $109,350,000 for the Senate and $146,716,000 for the Assembly.  Existing state law allows these funds to carry over from one year to the next, where they remain in the Senate and Assembly Operating Fund.  According to Portantino, the Assembly has been transferring 15 percent of its total appropriation to various state agencies — $52 million over the past three years.

AB 1887 provides that line item monies allocated to the Senate and Assembly cannot be diverted to other agencies or programs, unless such diversion is approved by a vote of the legislature and the signature of the governor.

Pay For Your Own Vanity

Portantino has called for an end of the vanity license plates that current and retired legislators receive — and barely pay for. “I was shocked, but not surprised to see that legislators would carve out a special situation for themselves and I’m determined to put an end to the practice,” Portantino said this week.

AB 2068 would require legislators that have personalized vanity legislative license plates on their personal cars,to pay the same fees that almost everyone else does for them.

Under existing law, current and retired legislators can ask the DMV for a license plate that designates them as a state legislator or retired state legislator.  The cost of these plates is $12 on issuance, and no additional or annual fees are paid with subsequent yearly registration. “Why should current and former legislators get special treatment for the issuance of license plates?  It makes no sense for former and sitting legislators to be treated any differently than everyone else,” Portantino said.

The cost of personalized license plates for the general public is $98. Other-themed license plates cost $50. Annual renewals costs run between $15 and $78.

Portantino said that the DMV reported there are 750 of these legislative license plates issued in California.  “In contrast, average Californians, retired police and fire included, pay $50 upon issuance and $35 per year thereafter.”

Portantino said that he does not drive a state-purchased district car, does not use an Assembly plate and has no plans to receive one upon retirement. AB 2068 will be heard in the Assembly Transportation Committee in about six weeks. While not an earth-shattering amount of money, the outcome of this bill will be significant as well as symbolic. Will legislators vote to pay for their own personalized license plates, or will vanity and entitlement win out?

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