Papers sue state to get spending records

The Los Angeles Times, Times Community News and the Sacramento Bee filed a lawsuit Friday seeking disclosure of state Assembly members' annual budget records in the wake of a dispute between Assemblyman Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge) and top lawmakers.

The Assembly Rules Committee in July slashed Portantino's staff budget, resulting in furlough notices to all 11 of his staffers in Pasadena and Sacramento.

Portantino said the budget cut is designed to punish him for voting against the state budget Democrats proposed in June, and demanded an accounting from the Assembly Rules Committee. The committee refused to disclose most of the figures, and said the cuts were imposed because Portantino had exceeded his staff budget in the past.

The Times, which owns the Pasadena Sun, La Cañada Valley Sun, Burbank Leader and Glendale News-Press, filed suit in Sacramento County Superior Court, arguing the budget figures should be a matter of public record. McClatchy Newspapers, owners of the Sacramento Bee, is a co-plaintiff in the case.

“The notion that the Legislature can keep secret information about how tax dollars are being spent is completely contrary to the law,” said Kelli Sager, an attorney representing The Times. “These kinds of records are precisely what the Legislative Open Records Act covers.”

The lawsuit seeks disclosure of annual Assembly member budget allowances for 2010 and 2011, including additional allowances for committee assignments, and any orders from the Rules Committee or Speaker's Office ordering changes to member budgets. The suit names as defendants the California Legislature, the California Assembly Committee on Rules and Rules Committee Chair Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley).

Records requests were sent to the Rules Committee in July by reporters with The Times, the La Cañada Valley Sun, the Sacramento Bee and Portantino after Assembly leaders imposed a $67,000 cut to Portantino's budget.

Under those cuts, members of Portantino's office staff have been ordered to take unpaid furloughs for six weeks, starting Oct. 21.

Robin Swanson, spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker John Pérez (D-Los Angeles), said Portantino was spending in excess of his 2011 allowance, which was reduced from last year's limit after Pérez removed Portantino as chair of the Assembly's Revenue and Taxation Committee. Leadership assignments result in higher allowances, she said.

In response to the records request filed by Portantino, the Rules Committee released expenditure documents for 2010. But the committee did not include figures for this year and excluded allowances related to committee assignments.

“These documents are either phony or incomplete because they're not including all member expenditures,” Portantino said.

Swanson said Portantino was raising the issue to gain attention as he campaigns for a seat in Congress in 2012, after term limits force him from the Assembly.

“He'd like to create a big soap opera about his own political career,” Swanson said. “If he was really concerned about [Assembly member spending], he might have done this a long time ago.”

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