John Chiang Blazes Future of CA Politics

JUNE 27, 2011


As they said in old-school physics, nature abhors a vacuum. Passed last November, Proposition 25 marginalized California Republicans by dropping from two-thirds to a majority the threshold for passing a state budget. That left the Democratic majority in the Legislature unfettered in its spending mendacity.

Into the void stepped Controller John Chiang, a fellow Democrat, to run the numbers and say the budget was unbalanced — that it was no real budget. Therefore, as the guy who writes the checks for the state, he was docking the legislators’ pay.

The pay docking also was part of Prop. 25. Except that the initiative didn’t indicate exactly how the pay was supposed to be withheld. As with almost all initiatives in this state, it was badly written, with the details left to be sorted out by the courts — another full employment program for lawyers.

Excuse the legalese, but here’s the exact wording of Prop. 25 on the pay matter:

Notwithstanding any other provision of law or of this Constitution, including subdivision (c) of this section, Section 4 of this article, and Sections 4 and 8 of Article III, in any year in which the budget bill is not passed by the Legislature by midnight on June 15, there shall be no appropriation from the current budget or future budget to pay any salary or reimbursement for travel or living expenses for Members of the Legislature during any regular or special session for the period from midnight on June 15 until the day that the budget bill is presented to the Governor. No salary or reimbursement for travel or living expenses forfeited pursuant to this subdivision shall be paid retroactively.

It’s like some lawyers put a dictionary into a blender, then randomly assembled the shards of words.

Abuse of Authority?

Legislators are complaining that Chiang is abusing his authority by withholding the checks. And back in May, two Los Angeles Times reporters wrote:

Fine print in the initiative, drafted by a labor coalition whose main interest was that it also gave Sacramento’s Democratic majority more control over state spending, may have contained an escape hatch.

The law stipulates that merely passing a budget bill — it says nothing about whether the budget is balanced, as California’s Constitution also requires — is enough to keep state pay rolling into lawmakers’ bank accounts. The Legislature passed a budget bill in March that closed about half of the deficit.

“The language … said the budget bill must be passed,” said Greg Schmidt, the Senate’s chief administrative officer. “Technically, the budget bill was passed on March 17.”

Schmidt said legislative attorneys have told him that what lawmakers must do to get paid “has already been done.” A written legal opinion has yet to be drafted, Schmidt said, but officials say such a document is typically a formality.

But if the controller, who writes the checks, isn’t in charge of docking the pay, then who is?

The whole point of the measure, as sold to the voters — including by the Democratic majority that still runs the Legislature — was that a late budget would mean a swift kick in the paychecks of delinquent lawmakers.


I don’t know how much Chiang knows about history. But he seems to be following the admonition of Danton during the French Revolution: “Audacity, more audacity, always audacity!”

Gov. Jerry Brown acted in a similar manner when he vetoed the budget. But his veto would have turned the unbalanced budget into the usual months-long budget grind without Chiang’s bold move. And Brown, at 73, is the past; whereas Chiang, at 48, could be the future. His move obviously is tinged with a potential gubernatorial bid, perhaps as early as 2014.

Chiang’s split with the Democrats also portends something I predicted in March: a split within the Democratic party between the spendthrift wing and the responsible wing. I wrote:

What will happen is that Democrats, as they did in the Sold South of half a century ago, will split into Right and Left….

We’ll still effectively have a two-party system. But it will be Democratic Party A and Democratic Party B. Republicans will become a de-facto third party, winning only in a few areas, such as Orange County.

That’s now happening. Because the reality is that the state is out of money. Raising taxes won’t work; it would only drive even more producers and taxpayers from the state.

With Republicans marginalized, the door was open for a Democrat to step forward and assert adult supervision. John Chiang just stepped through that door.

John Seiler is’s managing editor. His email: [email protected]







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