Dems stonewall accountability for Legislature

April 26, 2012

By Katy Grimes

SACRAMENTO — If revenge is a dish best served cold, it’s downright arctic in the California Legislature.

Two members of the Assembly just found out how frosty politics can be when there is a chilling, and deliberate betrayal of trust.

Assemblywoman Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield, and Assemblyman Anthony Portantino, D-La Canada-Flintridge, each had their posteriors handed to them this week, and were punished by Assembly leadership for daring to defy malfeasance within the Legislature.

Early this year, Grove authored three “good government” bills which, had they passed, would have opened up public access to legislative records, established competitive bidding for the Legislature and held the state and the Legislature to the same labor law and employment laws to which private sector businesses are held.

Last week, Grove’s wage and hour bill, AB 1948, suffered a death without a trial, killed in the Assembly Labor and Employment Committee in a blatant violation of legislative process.

Assemblyman Sandre Swanson, D-Alameda, chairman of the committee, ambushed Grove during the middle of the hearing with unfriendly amendments to her bill. When Grove said she did not want the amendments, Swanson ignored her. Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Salinas, immediately made a motion to advance the bill with the new amendments. And the Democrats on the committee voted to pass it. Grove again refused the amendments, and Swanson told her that her only recourse was to pull the bill from the schedule.

The committee could have just killed Grove’s bill, as Democrats do with most Republican bills. But the ambush was a message from party leadership to Grove.

“My intent was to make the professional politicians in the state legislature abide by the same regulatory burdens they impose on private businesses,” Grove said in a press release. “But the Democrats who run this committee shamefully hijacked my bill and rammed through amendments that would make it even more difficult for employers to do business in California. Private employers are fleeing the state and taking their jobs with them, and the Democrats are giving them an extra push by mandating requirements like three days of paid bereavement leave.

“This is just further evidence that it’s time to return California to a citizen legislature. It’s clear to me that the cowards in the majority party are too scared to live under the rules they create, and we need to send them home.”

Playing nicely in the sandbox

Grove has made it clear that she came to Sacramento to work hard and isn’t afraid of a ruckus. However, she she never bargained for the dirty pool and chicanery regularly used in the Assembly legislative process.

Another of Grove’s good government bills, AB 1946, was one of several good reform measures killed by the Assembly Rules Committee this week. When a bill is killed by that committee, it’s dead for the rest of the legislative session.

AB 1946 would have changed state law to provide public access to most records of the state Legislature. This law change would include budgets for both houses, as well as spending records for individual legislators and committees.

Rules Committee Chairwoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, who orchestrates Republican bill killings, was quoted after the hearing saying that AB 1946 was not a necessary bill because the Assembly has not contested the Superior Court order last year to release member-by-member budgets to the public. But the Assembly did not do this willingly–it took a court order from Superior Court Judge Timothy Frawley before the Assembly released its real spending records.

“The Assembly has accepted the court ruling, we did not appeal it, we’re practicing it now — and I felt that’s sufficient,” Skinner said, as reported by the Sacramento Bee reported.

After the dust-up in the Assembly over open records, Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, formed a legislative records task force late last year and named Skinner as its leader. The group wasn’t scheduled to meet until 2012, but thus far, there are no records are available of any meetings. “The Speaker’s committee on transparency is secret,” Portantino said. “The minutes on the committee…secret. We don’t know if they’ve ever even met. Members should be embracing transparency. It’s not a radical concept.”

No spending audit

The Assembly Rules Committee also killed Portantino’s AB 1887, which would have required the state controller to audit the spending by the Legislature for the next two years.  Thereafter, an independent firm would perform the annual audits.

“We celebrate when the auditor audits Bell, CA,” Portantino said. “We are an agency which budgets more than we need, for a slush fund.”

Portantino said the Legislature spends $146 million every year “with no accountability.” And last year, he said the leaders in the Assembly and Senate authorized $200,000 for lawyers to keep the information secret in the fight over records. “If we have nothing to hide, we shouldn’t,” Portantino said.

AB 1887 also would have required the Legislature to return any of the $146 million not spent. However, Perez gets to decide where and how the money gets spent.

The Standing Rules of The Assembly call for an annual performance audit of the Assembly. But last year, when Portantino first brought attention to this issue,  his chief of staff, Trent Hager, said the Assembly has never actually complied with this rule. And Hager ought to know — he said he worked for the Rules Committee for many years.

The rule reads, Performance Audit – 15.7. In addition to the annual financial audit required by Rule 15.6, the Committee on Rules shall contract for an audit of the administrative operations of the Assembly. The administrative departments to be audited shall be determined by the Committee on Rules. An organization performing an audit pursuant to this rule shall be selected by a majority of the membership of the Committee on Rules. A contract for an audit shall be awarded through a competitive bidding procedure. Audits shall be prepared in a manner and form to be determined by the organization performing the audit, and shall be consistent with generally accepted accounting principles.

All findings and recommendations reported by an auditing firm shall be made available to Members and to the public.”

Many in the Capitol say that there is an abundance of Capitol staffers on the payroll of the Legislature, but who actually work on campaigns.

“Skinner said the Assembly already contracts for an independent financial audit each year,” the Bee reported. “Because the Legislature votes each year on the controller’s budget, it would be inappropriate for the latter to conduct such an audit.”

“Assembly Rule 15.7 requires a performance audit, and not just a financial audit,” Portantino said. “What other rules are they breaking? We won’t know without an audit.”

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