Reporter's Notebook: From Budget Cash to Court Clash

Comments (1)

Few things make eyes bleary and heads throb more than reading government ledger sheets and complex, legalese court rulings. Throw in some minutiae about best budget practices and gubernatorial style... and you've got a full week.

Hence, the weekend cleanup from the Reporter's Notebook.

The "Likely" Fight Of Redistricting: It looks as though the true meaning of some possibly murky language inside 2010's Proposition 20 will get its day in court. On Friday afternoon, the California Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments related to the implications of the pending referendum of the state Senate map drawn by California's independent redistricting commission.

Specifically, the question is this: must the commission's map be shelved -- even for only 2012 -- if the referendum qualifies for the November ballot? And must it be shelved even if the referendum is merely "likely" to qualify? It's an issue that, as I wrote back in October, was raised in the first lawsuit filed by plaintiff (and referendum proponent) Julie Vandermost, an Orange County GOP activist. The Court's Friday communique suggests oral arguments before the middle of January on this question.

Vandermost's newest legal filing argues that using the commission's Senate maps before voters get the chance to reject those same maps is unconstitutional. "If the Court declines to act" and block the Senate maps, says her filing, "the People's special reservation of their right of referendum... will mean nothing in redistricting." And Vandermost points, perhaps most persuasively, to the title and summary for the redistricting referendum prepared by the office of Attorney General Kamala Harris as evidence that others, too, believe Prop 20 requires an interim solution if the referendum qualifies.

The AG's official summary says:

This referendum petition, if signed by the required number of registered voters and filed with the Secretary of State, will: (1) Place the revised State Senate boundaries on the ballot and prevent them from taking effect unless approved by the voters at the next statewide election; and (2) Require court-appointed officials to set interim boundaries for use in the next statewide election.

The formal response, from both the AG's attorneys and those of Secretary of State Debra Bowen: the referendum may not qualify and, even if it does, it will be too late to draw new districts. (And in trying to prove that qualification may take too long, the state's attorneys quote -- well, me -- in a blog posting about the signatures submitted.)

This case is nothing if not full of legal briefs; 14 separate legal documents were filed with the state's high court in just the last six days.

Meantime, Vandermost lost on another point on Friday -- namely, that Prop 20 requires the immediate selection of special court masters to draw its own Senate districts. The Court curtly rejected her request for so-called "interim relief." It also rejected Vandermost's request to delay the start of candidates filing for 2012 races, which begins on December 30.

So what does all of this mean? The only sure bet is this: California's 40 state Senate districts are not yet set in stone... and if the districts are redrawn, it will be at an unprecedented late date before a statewide election.

Put It On My Tab: November's report on state government cash generated extra attention this week, probably because it was further evidence of budgetary imbalance and thus plays into the building narrative of automatic "trigger cuts." The depth of those cuts will be announced this coming week as part of an updated 2011-2012 revenue forecast from the budget team of Governor Jerry Brown.

But the monthly cash report from Controller John Chiang also offered a glimpse at what's on the other side of the ledger from revenues: spending. And on a pure dollar-for-dollar basis, that's the bigger problem so far. Digging into the report (PDF), expenses classified as "Local Assistance" were more than $1.9 billion over-budget from July 1 to November 30. So what happened? A look at the line items shows cost overruns (at least, relative to what was promised vis-a-vis the June 28 budget) in programs ranging from Medi-Cal (approximately $387 million) to developmental services ($291 million). That last one -- developmental services -- is especially noteworthy, as the program is targeted for an additional $100 million cut under the first round of "trigger cuts."

But most of the over-budget spending is classified in the controller's report simply as "other local assistance." Chiang's office didn't reply by the end of Friday with more clarity on the nature of those expenses.

Budget Processes Will Change, I So Decree It: Governor Brown's executive order this week instructing his administration to "incorporate common sense program-evaluation methods into the budgeting process" was the promised action when he vetoed SB 14 in October. The bill, by Sen. Lois Wolk (D-Davis), was championed by the reform group California Forward as a way to make government spending decisions more thoughtful. But in his veto message, Brown deried SB 14 as "another siren song of budget reform," and said he'd deal with issues like performance based budgeting on his own. His executive order directs staff to create a proposal within 90 days, one that can be used for the budget he'll propose next month.

What, No Humvee? Governor Brown's foray into the world of direct democracy this week -- the unveiling of his budget initiative raising upper income taxes and sales taxes -- brought to mind the launch of the budget campaign of the last governor. And boy, were the two events ever different.

On March 1, 2005 Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger threw up his hands at legislative negotiations, walked out of a Capitol news conference to his waiting Humvee, and drove to a Sacramento suburban Applebee's to start gathering initiative signatures.

Schwarzenegger believed the machismo photo op would help cement the narrative that the state couldn't wait on legislators for "action, action, action." In contrast, Brown's end-run around the Sacramento process felt like what businesses call a "soft open," relegated to an email and a blurb on Twitter that didn't even reference the initiative.

In their own ways, both men actually created a side-story to the main news -- Schwarzenegger by being so over-the-top, Brown by being so understated as to almost be invisible on a proposal that may help define his entire term.

Tweets By Ted: Finally, an unofficial award to the Legislature's most prolific, and engaged, tweeter: state Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance). From airplane safety to mixing it up with political flacks and junkies, you've got to hand it to Lieu for his embrace of the social networking world of 140 characters. On Friday night, Lieu tweeted the following:

@tedlieu I am now prepared to make two admissions. I watched Twilight: Breaking Dawn this week. And I liked it.

Now, inquiring minds want to know: is he on Team Edward or Team -- um -- the other guy?

RSS Subscribe

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.