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Assembly Speaker: "Not Our Desire" To Strip UC's Constitutional Independence

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

Asm. Anthony Rendon (D-Paramount) sits with his wife Annie Lam in the Assembly chambers on January 11, 2016, the day he was elected speaker.

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

Calls to strip the University of California of its constitutional independence have intensified after an audit of the UC president’s office. But California’s Assembly Speaker appears reluctant to take such a far-reaching step.

The auditor found an “undisclosed” $175 million budget reserve of unspent funds left over from previous years and says the UC interfered with her audit. The UC says the money was never hidden and its reserve is just $38 million.

In an interview with Capital Public Radio, Democratic Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Paramount) said he sees “great value” in looking at the auditor’s recommendation of separating the budget of the president’s office from the rest of the university.

“This does not leave a good taste in the mouths of California taxpayers,” Rendon said Wednesday afternoon in his office at the state Capitol.

But when asked whether the state should reexamine the UC’s constitutional independence, the speaker said it’s neither his intention nor desire – though he did not rule it out.

“Look, we don’t want to manage the UC,“ Rendon said. “We do want them to be accountable. And we do want them to have the highest levels of transparency.”

Assembly Republicans want the speaker to subpoena budget documents from the president’s office. But Rendon said the Legislature’s subpoena power is limited to matters of “criminal malfeasance.”

“We certainly haven’t seen that at this point,“ Rendon said. “I’m much more interested in uncovering what happened. I’m interested in making sure that we have systems of accountability and transparency. Political showmanship – this is not the time for that.”

Napolitano's “testimony was not consistent with emails from her office, and only affirmed my belief that legislative subpoenas are absolutely needed here,“ responded Asm. Catharine Baker (R-Dublin), who, as vice-chair of the Assembly Higher Education Committee, requested the subpoena.

“Legislative subpoenas are the best way to get the fullest information unaltered and unfiltered from an office that has already demonstrated problems with complete candor,” Baker said in a statement issued by the Assembly Republican caucus.

Rendon also discussed health care, immigration, environment and housing affordability during the interview, which will air Thursday on Capital Public Radio's Insight.

Note: This story was updated at 1:40pm Thursday to add Asm. Baker's response.

Here's a transcript of Rendon's comments about the UC and its audit in the speaker's interview with Capital Public Radio Wednesday:

Q: Were you satisfied with (Napolitano's testimony Tuesday)?

A: Like a lot of my colleagues, I sort of echo their sentiments -- as both a member of the Legislature and a member of the UC Board of Regents, I was quite disappointed by the initial audit findings. I thought yesterday, while there was the start of discussion about some of the issues that were founded in the audit, I do think that it raised further questions, and we certainly didn't answer all the questions. I'll be at the UC Board of Regents meeting later this month, and I'll make sure the questions I have get answered as well.

Q: What questions do you have?

A: The allegations about obstructing the investigation - those are very problematic, very troublesome to me. I have more questions about sort of the approval of the funds, and all those types of things, as well as more general questions about the Legislature's overall role in ensuring the accountability of the institution.

Q: Did you consider President Napolitano's apology an apology for what she did? She said we think what we did was fine -- just, maybe, we could have handled it better, and apologized for a misimpression.

A: I certainly agree that it could have been handled better. I absolutely agree that it could have been handled better. We've been working really hard in the Assembly to establish a close relationship with the UC Office of the President. Our Higher Education (Committee) Chair, Jose Medina, has worked hard to make sure that there's tremendous amount of accountability and transparency in our efforts toward holding them accountable. And when you see these types of things, it's troubling to say the least -- and it really makes you question the extent to which the UC Office of the President is returning the effort to try to be cooperative with us.

Q: Assembly Republicans have asked you -- because you're the speaker and you would have to be the one to do this -- to approve a subpoena of budget documents from the university. I know you're reviewing it. What do you intend to do?

A: The subpoena power of the Legislature is something – it’s a power that we do have – but it’s really limited to when we see criminal malfeasance. We certainly haven’t seen that at this point. I’m much more interested in uncovering what happened. I’m interested in making sure that we have systems of accountability and transparency. Political showmanship – this is not the time for that.

Q: You could say there may have been political showmanship from Democrats and Republicans alike. That was a very long hearing with lots of questions on a very serious subject.

A: It was 2+ hours. I thought the questions, overall, I thought the questions were fair. It's a good start to the examination of what happened. And I also think the state Auditor did her job as well.

Q: Is it time to revisit the constitutional autonomy of the University of California?

A: Look, we don’t want to manage the UC. That’s not what we want to do in the Assembly. We do want them to be accountable. And we do want them to have the highest levels of transparency. I’ve been through this before with the (California Public Utilities Commission). I’ve been through this before with (the California Department of Parks and Recreation). This does not leave a good taste in the mouths of California taxpayers. It’s not our intention, it’s not our desire, to oversee the management of the UCs.

Q: What about budgeting separately for the Office of the President from the rest of the University? That was one key recommendation from the auditor, which the UC says would really challenge the constitutional autonomy. They're very against it.

A: That’s something we’ll have to look at, and we’ll look at moving forward, but I do see great value in that.

Ben Adler

Capitol Bureau Chief

Capitol Bureau Chief Ben Adler first became a public radio listener in the car on his way to preschool – though not necessarily by choice. Now, he leads Capital Public Radio’s state Capitol coverage, which airs on NPR stations across California.  Read Full Bio 

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