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Disclosing how politicians spend our money

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One of the reasons California’s government is so dysfunctional is that it’s so partisan. Democrats vote for Democratic bills and against Republican bills, while Republicans vote for Republican bills and against Democratic bills. Because Democrats greatly outnumber Republicans, almost every Democratic bill passes, regardless of its faults, and almost every Republican bill fails, regardless of its merits.

Most legislators need no prodding, of course, to vote the way they do — there is a very real and significant ideological divide in the state Legislature between the parties. But the legislators also know that there are potential consequences if they choose to buck the party line.

They might get their office budget slashed or be kicked out of spacious offices and into cramped spaces like the notorious “Doghouse,” which is so small that visitors are forced to wait in the hallway. Some legislators are forced to move their office out of the Capitol altogether.

There is no more important bill than the state budget. When one Democratic Assembly member, Anthony Portantino, representing La Cañada/Flintridge, dared to vote against the budget, he was informed by Assembly Speaker John Pérez that his office budget would be slashed. This will result in six Portantino staff members being forced to take an unpaid six-week furlough.

But, rather than accepting his punishment and promising to toe the party line, Portantino, who is termed-out in the Assembly and may be planning to run for Congress, chose to fight back. Portantino challenged Pérez’s contention that he was overspending by asking that the office budgets for all legislators be made public.

Pérez has refused to do so, citing a law with an Orwellian name: the Legislative Open Records Act, which actually allows the Legislature to keep some records secret. Pérez has also stonewalled media requests to release the documents, resulting in two newspapers filing a lawsuit to get the information.

The amount of money is not insignificant — the Legislature spends $256 million annually on itself. It is, after all, the taxpayers’ money.

Portantino has introduced HR 20, which seeks to make public all Assembly financial records. “Californians deserve the respect of the legislature by having access to how their money is being spent,” Portantino said. “We need to lead by example and not shroud our budgets in secrecy.”

But it’s unlikely that Portantino’s bill will go anywhere. Instead Pérez has formed a task force to look into the issue and report back in January. “How taxpayer dollars are expended is public information, and it is our job to ensure that the public has access to it,” Pérez said.

If the speaker truly believes that, he should drop the task force, speed passage of HR 20 and urge all members to immediately open their books, as some Republican freshmen Assembly members have already done.

“Sunshine is the best disinfectant,” as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said. And right now something stinks in Sacramento.