Assemblyman claims retaliation for budget vote

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.

Anthony Portantino“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.

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.

  • Elwood

    Gee whiz, Tony!

    Ya think?

  • Amy Lou

    “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 has already ignored his constituents AND the US Constitution to push his own personal anti-rights agenda with AB 144.

  • Jerry Jeung

    Amy Lou- You read my mind.
    The ASSemblyman has no respect for his oath of office or the United States Constitution.

  • Diego Jack

    “California is going to hell” really! Not due to the fine efforts of democrats, right?

  • Ray

    Yeah, “last time I checked, we were in America” and we have the right to bear arms. AB 144 is unconstitutional!

  • Seeing is believing

    These are the kind of things that happen when you take on a bill and parties decide to make you look bad so you cannot run for a US seat. Assemblymember Portantino is facing a backlash from all sides at this point yet if he dropped the gun bill he could gain some support by Republicans to assist him. Too bad Portantino turned to the ultimate dark side against our constitutional rights. The idea behind the move at the capitol is to make an example of him so he cannot run for a US level seat. Open Carry was the wrong bill to hang his hat on.

    I think this will only get worse in time against Portantino since he has upset a community that would back him. Banning open carry is going against the rights many Americans rely on and I wish I could explain why his own groups are baffled. What ever manipulation happened to get him to take this bill is going to fail him in the end whether or not AB 144 passes. Sometimes your competitor in these seats wants to remove a stronger candidate and this is just one of those circumstances. I would advise as a staffer or a friend to speak with you close friends and relatives whether this was a good idea. Open Carry may not be liked by making a crime out of even something as simple as a shirt blowing up for CCW holders and a no legel way to go to the range anymore is asinine.

    The slap down is gaining momentum here so we will watch your bill fail in some manner and then watch Portantino lose and never live this down. I shook my head and have not been too public due to family connections here but I still have issues with him taking this bill at all.

    My suggestion for a correction is to take internal knowledge and use it to publicly smash this bill and work with me to fix errors in the systems instead of banning simple things like open carry. The only reason people would want a ban on open carry is so they do not need to hear about it anymore not for practical reasons at all. If you really did not want to hear about it you would fix the processes that lead to it to begin with. You can fix these by publicly denouncing this bill and spelling out why it will not work for the people and what is necessary to fix the concerns in the open.

    I know you do not want to admit you are wrong but sometimes it is necessary for corrective actions. Use it just right and you will gain support and media recognition

  • Mike

    Well this is one Californian that will do everything he can to get this guy out of office forever. AB 144 is unconstitutional, so badly that even a layman can see. If this bill passes the NRA, and Second Amendment Foundation will have the state in court the day the law goes into effect. The state is already broke and this guy wants to throw away billions on law suits that cannot be won.

  • The Antedote

    Lets’ see here: I vote with every Republican against the budget; this budget cuts billions from the working class, while doing nothing to increase revenue from the finance class; and then I complain that my personnal budget is being cut.

    If its retaliation, then why didn’t the Rules committed slash the staffing budget for every Republican (which is what I would have done!).

    Sounds like some DINO got exactly what he voted for, budget cuts.

  • What goes around comes around. It is about time that the office budgets were slashed. it’s time for part-time legislature. Maybe legislators who sincerely believe in the Constitution.