The only Democratic state Assembly member to oppose his party’s budget plan last month says that Democratic leaders have threatened to lay off his entire staff in retaliation for that vote.
Assemblyman Anthony Portantino (D – La Cañada Flintridge) received notice Friday from Assembly Rules Committee Chair Nancy Skinner (D – Berkeley) that he must trim $67,179 from his office budget by July 15.
If Portantino fails to do so, Assembly leaders will impose sanctions that include forcing his Sacramento and Pasadena district office staffs to take unpaid leave from Oct. 21 to Nov. 30, according to a copy of that letter provided by the assemblyman.
“This bizarre and unprecedented action is clearly intended to punish me for my vote and to discourage other Assembly members from performing their duties in a conscientious manner,” said Portantino, who plans to run for Congress next year after he terms out of the Assembly.
Skinner’s office did not return calls, but Skinner’s letter states that Portantino’s spending in the first half of this year’s legislative session puts him on track to greatly exceed his budget allowance during the second half of the year.
“It’s an accounting gimmick to force party discipline — your budget is no longer approved, therefore you are over budget,” said Portantino, who argues his allowance is being scaled back to create the appearance of an overage.
According to documents provided by Portantino, the assemblyman’s total annual allowance in 2010 was $694,375, of which $657,591 was spent. That left Portantino more than $36,000 under his budget. For this year, his total annual allowance is now listed as $518,000, an amount he is projected to exceed.
“All spending is controlled by the committee, not me. I don’t have the ability to hire or appropriate. They control how it all gets allocated with no oversight, no open process. It’s like [the mismanaged cities of] Bell and Vernon,” said Portantino.
Portantino said he has stuck to roughly the same budget for each of the past five years.
The budgets of Assembly members are administered by the Rules Committee under the direction of Speaker John Pérez (D – Los Angeles), with whom Portantino has clashed numerous times.
Robin Swanson, a spokeswoman for Pérez, said that Portantino has been warned many times to rein in spending.
“He was told as recently as April that he needed to bring his office budget into compliance after it was found he overspent his office budget by almost $88,000. Now his office deficit is projected to be $67,179 by Nov. 30. The Speaker made the determination that during difficult budget times, it would be unfair to other members to continue to subsidize Mr. Portantino beyond his office's approved budget,” reads a statement by Swanson.
“In December, the speaker told me that he was wanting to cut my budget, but wanted to see how I was going to behave,” Portantino said Wednesday afternoon after disclosing his budget documents. “Obviously my budget vote was not in keeping with the behavior the speaker wanted.”
Swanson could not be reached for response to that comment.
In other moves that ran counter to the wishes of the Assembly’s leadership, Contrary to the Democratic majority, Portantino has also opposed the dismantling of state-funded redevelopment agencies — a position that provoked a tense, finger-pointing confrontation with Pérez on the Assembly floor in March — and plans for prison realignment that involved the early release of thousands of state prisoners. At the start of this year’s legislative session, Pérez removed Portantino as chair of the Assembly’s Revenue and Taxation Committee.
Portantino said April’s budget warning, which forced him to lay off a staff member, came only after he opposed Pérez on prison realignment.
Dan Schnur, director of USC’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, said Assembly members each typically receive very different budget allowances that can be modified by the leadership at any time — a process that usually remains behind closed doors.
A nearly $70,000 difference, however, strikes Schnur as extreme.
“[Portantino] would have to be taking office staff on Caribbean cruises to be that far over budget. Not only is this retribution, but it’s the harshest example of this type of payback I’ve ever seen. Usually they just move you to a smaller office and let you stew in a corner,” said Schnur.“
There’s no other plausible explanation: He’s being punished for his budget vote, pure and simple. The leadership is entitled to do that,” Schnur continued. “There’s no rule against it. But it raises questions about depriving members of [Portantino’s] district of the representation to which they’re entitled.”