***Editor’s Note: Assembly Member Wilmer Amina Carter (D-Rialto) doesn’t come off well in this story as the #2 offender. Carter was absent 23 sessions for medical reasons and never once waived accepting her per diem.

Carter

By Jim Sanders
jsanders@sacbee.com
Published: Sunday, Aug. 29, 2010 – 12:00 am | Page 1A

California legislators collected tens of thousands of dollars in taxpayer-funded per diem payments for floor sessions they did not attend this year, records show.

Failing to show up for work typically did not hurt lawmakers’ pocketbooks: Only about one of every four absences included the loss of the tax-free $142 per day in living expenses.

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The bulk of compensated absences was tied to medical ailments or to lawmakers who missed floor sessions at the same time they were campaigning for higher office.

Derek Cressman of Common Cause said that absent lawmakers had better have a good excuse for voters who depend upon them.

“Voters expect them to show up and do their job, just like any of us do,” Cressman said. “Applying for another job isn’t an excuse not to do the one you’ve got.”

Records show that the bulk of the absences stems from a relatively small group of lawmakers and that most legislators take per diem when they’re absent.

In the Assembly, former Speaker Karen Bass missed the most floor sessions not tied to prolonged illness – 17 of them – typically citing other legislative business. She waived per diem five times.

Senate records show a tie between Republicans Tom Harman of Huntington Beach and Jeff Denham of Merced. Each missed 11 floor sessions, typically citing personal business. Each declined per diem for eight of those absences.

All three of the leading absentees – Bass, Harman and Denham – ran for higher office this year. Bass and Denham won congressional primaries, while Harman failed in a bid for attorney general.

Bass’ chief of staff, Nolice Edwards, said the lawmaker does not miss floor sessions to campaign and that her absences have been due to district business ranging from community meetings or events to discussions with stakeholders in her bills.

“Outreach is a key part of the process, too,” Edwards said in a written statement. “Many bills never even make it to the Assembly floor without sufficient outside legwork to address potential issues.”

Harman and Denham, through aides, declined to comment on their attendance.

The Assembly’s 80 members totaled 239 absences from 60 floor sessions through Aug. 18. The 40-member Senate had 176 absences in 50 meetings during the same period. Cumulatively, the two houses paid per diem for 73.5 percent of the absences.

The totals target only floor sessions at which business was conducted, not myriad policy committees or floor “check-in” sessions held solely to take roll in order to qualify for per diem.

The Legislature has been hard hit by illness, including that of Dave Cox, R-Fair Oaks, who fought to attend floor sessions but missed eight before dying of cancer July 13. He received per diem but was committed to donating it to nonprofit causes.

Sen. Patricia Wiggins, a 70-year-old Santa Rosa Democrat who had displayed erratic behavior and erupted in occasional outbursts, has not attended floor sessions since March while treating an undisclosed medical condition.

Wiggins performs limited legislative work away from the Capitol, such as consulting with aides about her bills, spokesman David Miller said.

Sen. Jenny Oropeza, D-Long Beach, has missed every Senate floor session but one since May 21 because of an abdominal blood clot. Assemblywoman Wilmer Carter, D-Rialto, missed two months of floor sessions due to knee replacement surgery.

Wiggins, Oropeza and Carter received the $142 per diem while incapacitated, about $1,000 per week, in addition to their $95,291 salary.

Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, questioned why lawmakers with long-term medical problems should receive per diem indefinitely.

“The whole purpose of per diem is to make sure they’re in Sacramento voting,” Stern said.

Stern suggested that legislative per diem be capped at the number of sick leave days that a typical state worker can accrue, about one per month of employment. “If they’re absent after that, then they lose the per diem,” Stern said.

In defense of the practice, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said lawmakers physically unable to attend floor sessions still must pay rent in Sacramento.

“Find me a landlord who says you only have to pay for the days you’re here,” said Jon Waldie, Assembly administrator.

Kim Elsbach, a professor of management at the University of California, Davis, said that in the private sector “it would be unheard-of for someone to miss 17 days when they are expected to be there.”

The weak economy tends to prod more private-sector employees to show up for work even if they are sick or could telecommute, she said, because they fear losing their jobs and want to be perceived as hard workers.

Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, R-San Diego, said an absence does not necessarily mean a lawmaker was lax. He remembers missing a floor session or two while building a coalition to pass “Chelsea’s Law,” legislation to toughen penalties against sexually violent criminals.

“I would argue that there are times when you do more for your constituents outside the Capitol,” Fletcher said.

The Legislature’s written rules do not require lawmakers to detail what business they conduct while absent from the Capitol.

The Assembly and Senate rely largely on an honor system in which lawmakers request that they be excused for personal business, thus waiving per diem, or they cite legislative business, illness, travel delay or some other broad category that qualifies for per diem unless they reject it.

The bottom line is that voters have no way of judging how extensively a legislator worked while away – or on what issue. “There’s no accountability,” Stern said. “If they want to collect the per diem, there should be more disclosure.”

Steinberg said that lawmakers are honorable people and that he sees no reason to require them to document every activity, which could be difficult if they were involved in multiple tasks.

If a senator suddenly began missing floor sessions on days when campaign events were scheduled, Senate leadership would ask the lawmaker about it, though not necessarily require documentation, Steinberg said.

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