Assemblyman Anthony Portantino, D-La Cañada Flintridge, says party leaders are slashing his legislative staff in retaliation for his recent vote against the amended state budget.
“At the close of business on Friday, I received a letter from Assembly Member Nancy Skinner, Chair of the Rules Committee,” he wrote in a news release today. “Ms. Skinner informed me that my previously-approved budget for office expenses has been slashed for the third and fourth quarters of this year. The letter further stated that ‘effective October 21, 2011 through November 30, 2011,’ my entire Capitol and District staff will be placed on leave without pay.”
“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,” he continued. “I am very concerned that it will have a detrimental effect on the services for the District for which I proudly serve and I have asked Ms. Skinner to reconsider this exercise of power.”
Portantino said he was the lone Assembly Democrat to vote against the budget because he opposes further cuts to K-12 and higher education; he opposes the elimination of local redevelopment agencies, which have been useful to his district; he believes the prison realignment plan will make communities less safe and ultimately cost more; and he believes the revenue projections were too rosy.
“I knew that my vote ran counter to the wishes of the Assembly Democratic Leadership,” he wrote today. “However, I believed then, and continue to believe, that it reflected the needs and wishes of the residents of my District. To have ignored my constituents and legitimate policy priorities in order to curry favor with legislative leaders would have been an abdication of my responsibilities as an elected representative.”
He hopes Skinner will reconsider, but “if this is the price for speaking out and taking independent action, I will reluctantly have to pay it,” he finished. “The people of California will judge which of us is properly honoring our oath of office.”
Skinner’s letter (page 1, 2) actually says Portantino is spending in excess of his budget, and that his deficit will exceed $67,000 by November’s end; he has until this Friday to submit a new spending plan.
In a response today, Portantino notes all of his staffers were hired and approved by action of Skinner’s Rules Committee. He asks why he’s suddenly being deemed an over-spender, and asks when and how the committee cut his budget; whether other Assemblymembers are having their budgets cut mid-year; and whether his staffers – including “a single mother of three with a new-born child” – will lose their health insurance, too.
I’ve e-mailed Skinner’s office for a response, and will update here when I receive one.
UPDATE @ 1:12 P.M.: Haven’t heard back yet from Skinner, but I got a call a short while ago from a former legislative staffer who’s pretty steamed about this.
“California’s going to hell,” said William Schlitz, who worked as a staffer for Assembly Democrats including Barbara Lee for about 15 years and as a union lobbyist for three years before moving to Texas.
“If they want to punish him, fine,” Schlitz fumed, but it’s unforgiveable to take this out on staffers – some of whom have worked in the Legislature waaaaay longer than Skinner – whose only sin was to work for someone with whom the leadership now disagrees.
Former Speaker Willie Brown “never would’ve done this,” he said. “He knew once you went there, you’ve corrupted the system completely.”
Schlitz called Skinner a hypocrite for calling herself a workers’ champion while punishing aides for their boss’ vote, and for threatening to leave Portantino’s constituents without meaningful representation. “The fact that she would put her name on that piece of paper, ugh, she should have resigned as the Rules Committee chair first.”
UPDATE @ 1:45 P.M.: Robin Swanson, spokeswoman for Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, just e-mailed to say this is nothing more than Portantino being unable or unwilling to keep his own office’s spending in line:
“As Mr. Portantino made clear in his own press release, his office budget is out of balance. 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 November 30, 2011. 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. The Assembly simply could not continue to cover the spending gap and subsidize Mr. Portantino’s overdrawn office account.”
UPDATE @ 2:03 P.M.: I just spoke with Nancy Skinner, who says this has absolutely nothing to do with Portantino’s vote on the state budget.
She said Rules Committees staffers do quarterly projections of Assembly members’ office expenditures and advise them when they appear to be spending too much. Portantino’s first-quarter spending was too high, she said, and so the committee verbally advised him and his chief of staff of that in March.
“There was no adjustment in the expenditures that we could tell, so at the end of April a letter was sent – notice he didn’t release that letter to you,” she said; that letter also brought no changes, and so a second letter was sent Friday after staffers made new projections after the second quarter. “We do this whenever any member’s office is projected to be severely over budget – we let them know and then we monitor and if they don’t make any adjustments, we tell us they need to and ask them to show us how they’re going to.”
Amid all sorts of painful state budget cuts this year, Portantino seems to want a dispensation to spend an extra $67,000, Skinner said; she rhetorically asked what would happen if all 80 Assembly members did so. Non-rhetorically, my calculator tells me it would be $5.36 million in added spending.
Skinner said several Assembly members were advised after the first-quarter assessment that they were overspending; all but Portantino adjusted their office budgets, and he’s the only one with a projected deficit now.
UPDATE @ 3 P.M.: Anthony Portantino just called. His comments, after the jump…
Portantino takes umbrage at Skinner’s charge that he didn’t react to an earlier letter.
“The letter in question was sent when? Right after I didn’t vote for the realignment in March. So, I don’t vote, they raise a budget issue. I don’t vote again, they raise another budget issue,” he said. “And it’s amazing how she doesn’t know I let a staffer go – Mark Gonzalez left my office in response to them raising an issue.”
“For them to come back and say, ‘You’re over budget mid-year’ when I’ve been staying where I’ve been staying all four-five years I’ve been here, sounds like a three-card monte game of trying to say, ‘We don’t like how you voted and we’re going to raise an arbitrary problem,’ ” Portantino said.
Skinner set him a deadline of this Friday to present a new office spending plan, but he said he wants a written response to his letter today. “I think I asked germaine questions, prudent questions … and I am going to spend this year what I spent last year and the year before and the year before, what was approved. They are arbitrarily telling me it’s no longer approved, thus I’m over budget.”
“I don’t have any cards here to play, they hire the people, they approve the budget,” he continued. “What am I missing? All I want to do is serve my district. If they lay off their employees, they’re making that decision. That’s why I respectfully asked her to reconsider this decision, because it’s juvenile.”
“My expenditures from year to year haven’t changed. What changed? They didn’t like my vote. … Last time I checked, we were in America and I was elected to represent my district and vote my conscience,” Portantino said.