The Prop. 25 bait and switch

April 27, 2012

By Joseph Perkins

For years, Sacramento’s tax-and-spend Democrats tried to figure out a way to persuade California voters to amend the state Constitution to require a simple — rather than two-thirds — majority of the Legislature to pass the state budget.

In 2010, they finally hit pay dirt with Proposition 25, the so-called “On-Time Budget Act.”

The Democrat-backed measure allowed a simple majority to pass the budget. In exchange, it also included a provision calling for lawmakers to be docked their pay every day they failed to pass the state budget beyond the Constitution’s June 15 deadline.

Without that provision, it is highly unlikely Prop. 25 would have won voter approval.

But that mattered not to Sacramento Superior Court Judge David Brown. On Wednesday, he ruled that state Controller John Chiang overstepped his constitutional authority last summer when he garnished lawmakers’ paychecks after they delivered a balanced budget 12 days late.

Judge Brown’s ruling came in a lawsuit filed against Chiang in January by state Senate President Pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, and Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, which argued that the Legislature complied with Prop. 25 last year by sending a state budget to Gov. Jerry Brown by June 15.

Of course, the governor vetoed the bill June 16, admonishing his fellow Democrats in the Legislature for sending him a supposed “balanced” budget that “contains legally questionable maneuvers, costly borrowing and unrealistic savings.”

Chiang reached the same conclusion as Gov. Brown after conducting his own analysis of the Legislature’s budget. And, per the directive of the “On-Time Budget Act,” the controller docked lawmakers’ paychecks until they sent the governor a revised budget that was not so obviously imbalanced.

Court explanation

Brown acknowledged Chiang’s authority to “audit all claims against the state and all claims for the disbursement of any state money for correctness and determine whether the law supports payment.”

Yet, the judge held that Chiang violated the Constitution’s “separation of powers” clause by refusing to pay lawmakers for their June 15 budget that, according to the judge, was balanced “on its face.”

He left it up to the Legislature alone — not Chiang, not even the governor — to determine whether lawmakers’ truly have passed a balanced budget.

Well, if Brown’s ruling stands, it will be business as usual in Sacramento. Steinberg, Perez and their spendthrift colleagues “will be able to keep their salaries flowing,” said Chiang, “by simply slapping the title ‘budget act’ on a sheet of paper by June 15.”

What particularly troubles about Brown’s ruling is that, while he is deferential to the Legislature (to a fault), he clearly couldn’t care less about the will of California voters.

Indeed, he blithely accepted the contention of Steinberg and Perez that the Legislature’s June 15 budget last year complied with Prop. 25. But the smoke and mirrors lawmakers employed to produce their dubious first budget was absolutely not what the state electorate had in mind when it approved the ballot measure two years ago this November.

Prop. 25 has proven a bait and switch. The voters did away with the constitutionally required supermajority to pass a state budget in favor of a simple majority. But Judge Brown has taken away the threat lawmakers faced of reduced paychecks when they fail to deliver a genuine balanced budget by the constitutional deadline.

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  1. ExPFCWintergreen
    ExPFCWintergreen 27 April, 2012, 12:14

    It isn’t the judge’s fault. The initiative drafting was the problem. The initiative says, “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”

    All Prop. 25 requires is for the Legislature to “pass” a budget by June 15. unless it says so, the initiative can’t be interpreted to put words in there allowing the Controller to make the call on whether the budget that was “passed” was balanced or not. That would be the worst form of judicial activism, especially in California–unlike Congress, which can only do what the US Constitution says it can do, the California legislature can do anything it wants, as long as the state constitution doesn’t prohibit it.

    The fault lies in the drafting. Who did the drafting? Why your state Legislature.

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