By Jim Sanders
jsanders@sacbee.com
Published: Sunday, Sep. 4, 2011 – 12:00 am | Page 3A

You don’t need to see the documents to know that life in the California Legislature is governed by power.

But as the curtain lifts on how the institution doles out more than $250 million each year, it’s clear that leaders – particularly in the lower house – can use money to keep members in line.

The systems vary between the Assembly and Senate, but both houses pad legislators’ staffs by millions of dollars through the assignment of committee chairs – or slash funds just as quickly by taking such plums away.

In an era of term limits and campaign finance restrictions, office budgets are among the few remaining leadership hammers, said Garry South, a Democratic political strategist.

“These leaders just don’t have a lot of tools to deal with anymore, and to the degree that they don’t, all subtlety is lost,” South said.

The Bee and Los Angeles Times filed suit last month after the Assembly refused to release office budgets under the Legislative Open Records Act.

In subsequent responses, the Assembly and Senate shed rare light on how they allocate money.

In past years, the tradition has been to release year-old expenditure data, not records that could show whether a leader padded or cut funds in proximity to key votes.

Key documents remain undisclosed, but minimum levels of staffing and office space are largely formula-driven in the Senate, while the Assembly provides members with a base budget and typically augments it through caucus funds or committee assignments.

Leaders of both houses distribute political prestige by assigning committee chairs – and the staff funding that comes with such titles.

In the Senate, expenditure records show the house spending $3.3 million through July 31 for a staff pool for select committees that handle issues ranging from the wine industry to horseracing. Upon request, it provided a breakdown showing that only two of 61 aides in the pool are assigned to GOP senators.

In the Assembly, Berkeley Democrat Nancy Skinner has received an office supplement of $228,925 through July 31 for chairing the Rules Committee, while nearly $1 million has been split among seven Democrats on that panel.

Both Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg have raised eyebrows this year by cracking down on colleagues for alleged misbehavior.

Steinberg stripped Republican Sen. Tom Berryhill of an agricultural committee chairmanship after the Oakdale Republican suggested that solving this year’s budget crisis was the job of Democrats, not the GOP.

“The job of leader is a very interesting, difficult and sometimes precarious balancing act,” Steinberg said. “You do your best by your members, but you also have to do your best to keep the discipline of the process moving forward.”

Assemblyman Anthony Portantino, D-La Cañada Flintridge, accused Pérez of slashing his budget as punishment for casting the lone Democratic vote against this year’s budget. Pérez, through a spokeswoman, said action was taken only after Portantino continuously ignored warnings to tighten his belt.

Put simply, the Senate does not assign office budgets to each member. The Assembly does provide a bottom-line sum for each office – but it insists that such records are confidential.

The Senate depends largely on its Rules Committee to avoid red ink, while the Assembly places the onus primarily on members, then issues warnings and cracks down if deficits persist.

The Assembly’s base budget is $263,000 per member, but it typically is augmented by tens of thousands of dollars. Certain expenses – from furnishings to district office rents – are not charged against it.

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