Editorial: Of course the California attorney general’s wife shouldn’t oversee his budget
A flurry of news stories in recent days exposed the questionable appointment of Assemblymember Mia Bonta (D-Alameda) as chair of a budget subcommittee that will recommend funding for the state Department of Justice, which is run by her spouse, Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta. The right response would have been an immediate mea culpa from those involved in the selection and a promise to remedy the apparent conflict of interest before the subcommittee’s first meeting in March.
After all, the public’s faith in government has been waning for years and there’s no point in exacerbating the mistrust, even if the appointment is perfectly legal. There are 79 other Assembly members, none of whom are married to the state’s attorney general, who could reasonably serve as a replacement.
But instead of contrition, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood) chose to gaslight those who raised concerns, including Bob Stern, one of the state’s foremost political ethics experts: “The Legislature has a robust and transparent budget process, designed with checks and balances to ensure the best possible budget is passed. Our final Assembly budget proposal must be identical to the Senate, and will be approved or vetoed by the Governor,” Rendon said in a statement. In other words, “blah, blah, blah. Whatever. I don’t care.”
With several politicians stepping down, some California voters face up to four elections next year to choose who represents them in Sacramento or D.C.
Bonta is not chagrined by the arrangement either. She said she was happy to accept the appointment and suggested the question is sexist. In a statement provided to The Times’ editorial board, Bonta said: “There certainly are many examples in our legislative history where policy and budget chairs had spouses serving in another branch of government. Yet, I wonder if the reason I am being asked these questions is because I am a female legislator.”
More gaslighting! Since the speaker and Bonta fail to see the conflict, we will spell it out clearly: Having Bonta chair the budget subcommittee that is responsible for proposing and overseeing the funding of her spouse’s agency is inappropriate because it can create the perception of preferential treatment. There’s a big distinction between a legislator having a spouse serving in another branch of government and the Bonta-Bonta arrangement in which one family member has direct power to benefit the office of another family member.
Furthermore, the Bontas have a history of using their political power to benefit each other. The news site CalMatters reported that over several years when he was an Assembly member Rob Bonta steered more than half a million dollars to three community nonprofits that employed his wife, either directly through donations from his campaign funds and a foundation he created, or indirectly by asking companies such as Google to donate to those nonprofits. And when Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed Bonta as attorney general in 2021, he contributed thousands from his own campaign funds to help his wife when she ran for his Assembly seat.
Mia Bonta’s appointment may be legal, but that doesn’t make it right.
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