News Column

California Taxpayers Foot Bill for Legislature's Split Recess

July 3, 2013

The California Legislature fights over everything from taxes to red-light cameras, but routinely the two houses agree on details of a monthlong summer recess _ until now.

Though costs will be small, taxpayers will be left holding the bag.

The oddity stems from a disagreement between legislative houses that will see the Assembly launch its lengthy summer break late Wednesday and return Aug. 5. The Senate won't leave until July 12 and returns Aug. 12.

The practical impact is that taxpayers will pay for legislative airfare and per diem to fly some senators who are on recess back to the Capitol to present their bills to Assembly committees _ and vice versa.

Assemblyman Curt Hagman, R-Chino Hills, pointed blame squarely at Democrats, who control both houses.

"Welcome to the supermajority of California, where they can't even agree on the calendar," he said.

Officials of both houses defend their recess schedule as the best option.

By hearing many bills in policy committees before recess, the Senate ensures that its Appropriations Committee will have more time to weigh fiscal measures before an Aug. 30 deadline.

For the Assembly, the reverse is true: By hearing many bills after recess, its Appropriations Committee will face a time crunch, but policy committees will have more time to consider amendments.

"It was just an honest disagreement about the best calendar for the year _ and both houses elected to pursue their own," said John Vigna, spokesman for Assembly Speaker John A. Perez.

But Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, said the disagreement raises a basic question: If the Legislature can't agree on recess, what can it agree on?

"So much for comity and working together," he said.

Democratic Assemblyman Luis Alejo of Watsonville said legislators who are on recess from the Capitol are not necessarily vacationing _ he personally plans to be working in his district.

"If we have to come back and do some more working during the week where there isn't agreement, I'm totally fine with that," Alejo said.

No estimate is available of extra airfare or per diem costs to be incurred because of the dispute. Legislators who present bills at the Capitol during their recess are entitled to $142 in extra pay for each day they work.

Greg Schmidt, Senate secretary, said the upper house tried to be accommodating by hearing many of the Assembly bills in policy committees prior to the scheduled recess.

The Senate Daily File lists only two committee sessions, involving nine Assembly bills from five legislators, during the scheduled recess for the lower house.

By contrast, the Assembly Daily File lists six committee hearings, involving 26 bills from 14 senators, during the week in which the Assembly will be back but not the Senate.

Each house sends fiscal bills passed by policy committees to its Appropriations Committee, which must analyze and act on them by Aug. 30.

During recesses by both houses, lawmakers will be away from the Capitol, but their staff members will continue working as usual.

Rhys Williams, spokesman for Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said the differences in recess schedules will not alter deadline dates for passing bills or concluding this year's legislative session on Sept. 13.

"Ultimately, both the Senate and the Assembly will conclude its work on the same day," he said. "They reach the same goal, with the same objective, so the differences in schedules are minor."

Sen. Tom Berryhill, R-Oakdale, said lobbyists are the biggest losers.

"They're going to have to stay here the whole doggone time," Berryhill said, noting that lobbyists will not be free to vacation during any week that either legislative house is in session.

No big deal, scoffed John Lovell, a veteran lobbyist.

"It's part of the job," he said, smiling. "I played 11 years of football and I had 37 amateur boxing matches _ this doesn't come to that level of hardship."

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