Petty Lawsuit Shows Leaders’ Motive

Katy Grimes: A petty lawsuit filed by Assembly Speaker John Perez and Senate Pres. Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg against the state Controller demonstrates the legal levels the Democratic leaders are willing to go. While it may sound as if this is a legal precedence-setting opportunity, it’s not their dime – taxpayers are funding the entire lawsuit.

Precedence is always easy to pursue when someone else is paying the attorney’s fees.

Steinberg, of Sacramento, and Perez, of Los Angeles, have sued state Controller John Chiang, claiming that Chiang’s June decision to withhold lawmaker’s pay for not approving a balanced budget by the constitutional deadline, violated the constitutionally mandated separation of powers.

Pffft.

Chiang rightly said that he will stand by his decision and “welcomes” the judicial review.

Steinberg and Perez say they are seeking legal answers to the “important constitutional questions raised by the controller’s action,” after Chiang withheld two weeks of pay last June, determining that the budget they passed was not balanced.

The controller’s decision stems from ballot initiatives Propositions 25 and 58. Prop. 25 withholds legislators’ salary and expenses if they fail to pass a budget by California’s constitutional deadline, June 15.

Prop. 58 requires the Legislature to pass a balanced budget. For legislators to get paid, both requirements must be fulfilled.

“The issue before us is not the role of my office, but how to enact the will of the voters,” Chiang said in a written statement. “It is noteworthy to point out that the Legislature’s budget proposal was not only vetoed by the Governor for not being a ‘balanced solution,’ but it was determined by the Treasurer to not be financeable, and would have, within months of its passage, led to the issuance of IOUs.

“While nothing in the Constitution gives me the authority to judge the honesty, legitimacy or viability of a budget, it does clearly restrict my authority to issue pay to Legislators when they fail to enact a balanced budget by the Constitutional deadline of June 15.”

Where things get a little odd is with the involvement of retired Court of Appeals Justice Arthur Scotland, who is representing Steinberg and Perez in the lawsuit. There are whispers among members of the legal community questioning Scotland’s representation of the legislators, in what some say could be a conflict of interest.

Steinberg said that he and Perez sued Chiang to protect future Legislatures from “mischief.” Perez, responded that the suit is not personal, but “about ensuring a clear budget process for the people of California.”

“Protect future Legislatures from mischief?” Pot, meet kettle.

“One has to acknowledge the moxie of Steinberg and Perez,” Jon Fleishman of The Flash Report wrote.  “In essence, they are leading the charge for the idea that if the legislature wants to say that a budget isn’t balanced, and pass it anyway, that they should have the right to do so without any interference from Chiang or anyone else who is not in the legislature.”

Fleishman is right. Perhaps Steinberg and Perez use another definition of “mischief.” But the correct use of the word would involve the synonyms, “transgressions, misconduct, misbehavior, and sabotage.”

Steinberg said, “Neither the governor nor any other member of the executive branch can brandish the threat of withholding pay because they disagree with decisions made by legislators.”

Don’t the voters, also known as taxpayers have a say? And in fact, didn’t voters pass both propositions demanding a timely and balanced budget? I am confident that the message from voters is clear.

Maybe this lawsuit is a good idea. It’s a chance for voters to see just how their elected representatives game the system. Chiang, also an elected official, seems to be the only adult in the room willing to do his job.

JAN. 30, 2012

1 comment

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  1. Cosmin
    Cosmin 13 February, 2012, 02:34

    Ryan, that makes the Supreme Court seem alulwfy shallow. But even if it was the Court’s intention to discourage these types of political suits, wouldn’t the simplest, and most intellectually honest, thing to have done been to toss the suit on jurisdictional grounds (which the Court can do sua sponte)? Laying down the jurisdictional gauntlet is the surest and most expedient way of disposing of political suits.

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