- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 26, 2015

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) - California Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins plans to stop steering millions of dollars toward favored causes using her chamber’s operating fund.

The announcement comes a day after The Associated Press reported that Atkins and her two predecessors redirected $115 million to programs of their choosing between 2008 and 2014 with little oversight. Last year Atkins steered money to programs to help veterans, the elderly and schoolchildren.

Leaders have defended this practice as helping worthy causes, but government watchdogs warn of limited oversight and the potential for abuse.

Atkins’ spokesman John Casey said Tuesday that the speaker will stop unilateral spending starting this summer because there is enough money in the state budget to fund cash-strapped programs through traditional channels.

“The state is on finer footing, and we are adjusting the amount of money we transfer,” said Casey.

Several recipients of Assembly speaker funding are now up for funding through the state budget being negotiated with the state Senate and governor, including the Museum of Tolerance for diversity and inclusion training programs and labor research centers.

Speakers have tapped the Assembly’s budget for outside programs less in recent years as the state has recovered from its budget crisis, drawing $13 million last year compared with $21 million in 2013. Atkins indicated no plans to end the practice in an interview with The Associated Press last month.

She said she is careful to only fund programs with broad support. In her first year as speaker, Atkins has redirected $2 million to the Museum of Tolerance, $2.7 million for senior nutrition and $625,000 to help National Guard veterans find work.

Atkins, however, isn’t proposing legislation that would end the speaker’s authority to single-handedly dictate spending out of the chamber’s operating fund.

Sending money from the Assembly budget has an added benefit for lawmakers. It helps maintain the funding level for hiring lawmakers’ aides, renting district offices and other day-to-day expenses because unspent funds in the legislative budget may be lost permanently under a voter-approved formula designed to prevent taxpayers from overspending.

Assembly officials say they’ve been able to avoid layoffs and budget shortfalls by shifting funds in contrast to the state Senate.

In a prepared statement, Assembly Minority Leader Kristin Olsen, R-Riverbank, said Atkins made the right move in phasing out legislative spending “without any accountability to the public.”

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Follow Fenit Nirappil on Twitter at www.twitter.com/FenitN.

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