Legislators Lose Pay. See You In Court?

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Getty/Justin Sullivan

Given the hard-to-be-lower approval ratings of the California Legislature, there's likely to be a lot of cheers around the state today from Controller John Chiang's decision to cancel the salary and expense payments for the 120 men and women who serve in the Assembly and Senate.

But inside the big domed building just down the street from Chiang's office here in Sacramento it's jeers, not cheers. And the political and legal battle surely to be launched by the actions of the state's chief financial officer add yet another historic footnote to a budget season chock full of noteworthy moments.

Controller Chiang today decided that two sections of the California Constitution, enacted separately by the voters via Proposition 25 in 2010 and Proposition 58 in 2004, require him to assess whether a budget ratified by the Legislature is "balanced," and to block all legislative paychecks scheduled to be sent out at the end of this month if it's not.

Chiang says last week's proposal doesn't meet the standard.

"The numbers simply did not add up, and the Legislature will forfeit their pay until a balanced budget is sent to the Governor," said the controller in a written statement at midday, which was accompanied by an analysis (PDF) of how he reached that conclusion.

That analysis shows the budget missed the 'balanced' designation, in the eyes of the controller, by $1.85 billion. His primary objection was the level of money provided for public schools under the Proposition 98 funding guarantee. Chiang asserts that the legislative budget missed the Prop 98 mark by $1.3 billion. Questions were first raised about the now vetoed budget's school funding level last week, outlined here in a story by our former KQED education reporter, Kathryn Baron.

Chiang's other findings seem to hinge on the decision by legislative Democrats to not send Governor Brown the related budget implementation, or "trailer," bills. Chiang's analysis identifies $954 million in solutions that he says can't be counted without those additional pieces of legislation. No doubt Democratic leaders have kept those bills off the Guv's desk for one simple reason: the hope that some of the solutions might be resuscitated for an eventual budget agreement, bills that were passed in some cases by twisting some politicians' arms that would be hard to twist a second time.

Photo Chiang's Flickr pageThe controller's official statement leaves his rejection of the budget at those issues, and does not wade into other questionable assumptions included in the legislative budget. "While the vetoed budget contains solutions of questionable achievability and some to which I am personally opposed," said Chiang, "current law provides no authority for my office to second-guess them."

As mentioned in my posting over the weekend, this isn't the first time that John Chiang has been in the spotlight during state budget standoffs since taking office in 2005. But in years past, his stance on budget issues has been almost universally lauded by his fellow Democrats.

Not this time.

"I believe he was wrong," said Assembly Speaker John Perez in a statement. "The controller is, in effect, allowing legislative Republicans to control the budget process and I believe that’s a very unfortunate outcome that is inconsistent with the intent of Proposition 25."

On Monday, Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said that there's a broader issue at hand, one of separation of powers between the executive branch (which Chiang, while an independently elected statewide officer nonetheless inhabits) and the legislative branch.

Rank and file Democratic legislators were far less kind today to their fellow Democrat.

"I halted a fulfilling private sector career path to enter public service," said Assemblymember Mike Gatto (D-Burbank) in an emailed statement. "I now have to explain to my wife and daughter that we won't be able to pay the bills because a politician chose to grandstand at our expense."

Some Democrats are already suggesting that if it's more cuts that will make things right, then perhaps that's what they'll have to do. And those same Dems say privately that Chiang may now have to "own" the eventual budget, even if he has no role in its crafting or passage.

There were plenty of political jabs about the Democrats' budget last week and whether it was balanced through gimmicks. But questions about its legal status seemed rooted in the veto message from Governor Jerry Brown:

Unfortunately, the budget I have received is not a balanced solution. It continues big deficits for years to come and adds billions of dollars of new debt. It also contains legally questionable maneuvers, costly borrowing and unrealistic savings. Finally, it is not financeable and therefore will not allow us to meet our obligations as they occur.

No doubt Brown's own words will play a role in what will surely be a legal fight to come. No one has yet stepped up to say they will sue the controller; look to termed out legislators as perhaps the only ones who could withstand the ugly PR. In fact, the only mention of lawsuits at this point is in defense of Chiang's action from an unlikely backer: Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

"Dear Controller Chiang," Coupal tweeted this morning. "If you do your duty and withhold legislator compensation and are sued, HJTA will offer free legal representation."

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.
  • Churchlady

    To hell with Jon Coupal. Disgusting grandstanding. These are serious and tough issues starting with the Governor’s refusal to include Dems in the negotiations, a pandering to the GOP with absolutely NO results, a failure to tell the Dems of his dislike of their work, and on and on. Unless and until the GOP step up and do the moral thing rather than political thing, the numbers of human beings who will be decimated by the impending cuts will be outrageous. The GOP and Governor bear much of the responsibility because they have NOT done anything to help, only to hinder, a resolution that keeps this state a decent place to live and gives those abandoned by the private sector a chance to live however marginally, with basic supports.

  • Happycow

    What is disgusting, Churchlady, is the continuing failure–year after year–of the Democrats to actually offer the governor a balanced budget. Did you read their budget?!? I left the Democratic party several years ago precisely because of their lack of integrity.

    I don’t agree with them but the Republicans are entirely within their right to stand united against tax increases. Democrats need to either adopt the reforms or pass an all-cuts budget without taxes. If the voters don’t like it, they can vote Republicans out and give the Democrats enough of a margin to pass whatever budget they want. Grow up and do the job you were elected to do.

  • John Doe

    I Love it! This should have been done 15 years ago.

    No work, no pay…

  • Bob Sherman

    Poor Mike Gatto. I would suggest that he resign his seat immediately and go back into the private sector or, quit trying to spend money that we don’t have and pass abudget that makes sense.

  • hello

    The requirement that the Legislators Pass a balanced budget is actually new. It was ushered in with Prop 25. Before that, the budget only had to be balanced when the Governor signed it. But also keep in mind that a balanced budget doesn’t have to (and probably will not) “make sense” or have “integrity”. It doesn’t have to. All it has to do is add up.

    Which means that odds are excellent that all of us here will hate the budget. But then we, the voters, have spent as long as the Legislators protesting against taxes while demanding ever more services. So this mess is really as much our fault as theirs. And it’s only right that all of us (and not just 50% of us) finally face the music.

  • Pamela Davis

    “I halted a fulfilling private sector career path to enter public service,” said Assemblymember Mike Gatto (D-Burbank) in an emailed statement. “I now have to explain to my wife and daughter that we won’t be able to pay the bills because a politician chose to grandstand at our expense.”

    So in otherwords, you feel like a State Worker caught up in the budget conflict as a pawn subject to furloughs and paycheck holds… welcome to the club.

    Whiner.

  • Tim Haley

    Finally, 2 Dems
    Finally, 2 Dems who understand the will of the people in the law as written.
    Finally, 2 Dems who actually obey the law as written.
    Finally, 2 Dems who are not lying to the people RE: the budget but are realistic as to its content.
    Finally, 2 Dems who realize its time to pay the band after dancing to the music for decades.

  • http://www.kqed.org/weblog/capitalnotes/blog.jsp John Myers

    Hello: Actually, you’re slightly off on the balanced budget issue. The 2004 amendment, Proposition 58, address both the Legislature and the governor’s role on this issue.

    It’s in Article IV, Section 12:
    “…[T]he Legislature may not send to the Governor for consideration, nor may the Governor sign into law, a budget bill that would appropriate from the General Fund, for that fiscal year, a total amount that, when combined with all appropriations from the General Fund for that fiscal year made as of the date of the budget bill’s passage, and the amount of any General Fund moneys transferred to the Budget Stabilization Account for that fiscal year pursuant to Section 20 of Article XVI, exceeds General Fund revenues for that fiscal year estimated as of the date of the budget bill’s passage.”

  • hello

    John: Thanks for the corection. You’re right; Prop 25 merely restated that requirement (it had to be re-lettered); it wasn’t new.

    I sit corrected.

    Inna

  • B-Safe

    our clueless lawmakers get a taste of reality.
    of course they will go to court to fight for their unearned pay.
    they are unaccustomed to the real world pressures of “accountability and responsibility”.

  • Picante

    “I halted a fulfilling private sector career path to enter public service,” said Assemblymember Mike Gatto (D-Burbank) in an emailed statement. “I now have to explain to my wife and daughter that we won’t be able to pay the bills because a politician chose to grandstand at our expense.”

    What a shame, Mr. Gatto. This is what it’s like for all the State workers while you fail to do your job – pass the budget. If I don’t do my job, I don’t get more time to do it, I get fired. Go back to private sector if all you care about is yourself. Maybe you missed the word “public” in public service.

    Legislators need to get back in touch with who they serve.

  • Mace

    Exactly these crooks have been living off the high hog long enough! They’re caught now, pay the price. If the budget doesn’t balance, they’re caught. If the beans aint cookin, then sumthin must be wrong with crock pot!!! Nice job John Chiang

  • barbara

    GOOD! Lets see them ruin their credit get three day notices or decied what to buy at the grocery store pet food or people food all things I’ve had to deal with because they refuse to pay vendors until they get around to doing their job.
    Friends have lost everything homes business waiting to get paid by the State I have only contempt for these so called law makers living high on our dime and they can care less about our troubles.