Spending data shed little light

Though the state Legislature released lawmakers’ office spending records under pressure from advocacy groups and a lawsuit by two major newspapers, the data do little to reveal whether Central Coast representatives in Sacramento are spending inappropriately during a bad economy and a time of government spending cuts.

The data break down how much each lawmaker has spent so far during the current legislative session on office employee pay and benefits, member and staff travel, the cost of running district offices and other expenses.

Figures disclosed by the state Senate Rules Committee show that Sen. Sam Blakeslee, R-San Luis Obispo, ranked 12th among California’s 40 senators, spending just over $711,000 between the start of the legislative session Dec. 1 and July 31.

State Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian, R-San Luis Obispo, had just over $216,000 charged to his base office budget of $263,000 in the same period, ranking 46th among the 80 members of the Assembly in that category.

But it’s hard to put those rankings or spending numbers into context because of the complex manner in which lawmakers are given money to spend by leaders of their respective chambers.

“There’s no way of knowing what anyone is really spending, or whether they’re underspending or overspending,” Craig Swaim, Achadjian’s chief of staff, said Thursday.

For instance, figures disclosed by the Assembly show that Achadjian spent about $147,000 so far in this session.

But Swaim noted that the Assemblyman’s actual staff spending has been $172,553. That’s because his salary as chief of staff is paid through the chamber’s Republican Party Caucus.

Another example complicating a determination of the true cost of running legislative offices is that district office rent is paid by the Assembly directly, rather than out of individual members’ budgets, Swaim said.

That’s because rent for an Assembly member’s office in a pricey commercial real estate market such as San Francisco would be much higher than a less-expensive market such as Fresno.

Even the way individual members are furnished staff, offices or other allowances differs between the two chambers.

Assembly members are furnished a base budget, plus additions from party caucuses or committees, and have more discretion on their own staffing and spending priorities. The state Senate is managed more collectively through its Rules Committee.

Greg Schmidt, secretary of the state Senate, said Thursday that the chamber does not have fixed budgets for individual members. Rather, each senator is furnished a personal staff of eight to 10 people, depending on whether his or her district covers just one county, or multiple counties.

And Senate staffers are paid in a range of salary steps that are based on the category of their positions, as well as experience and income history, he added.

While senators get block grants for incidental expenses such as postage, publications or staff travel — depending on the size of their districts — most other expenses are billed to the Rules Committee, Schmidt said.