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Legislators Lose Pay. See You in Court?

| June 21, 2011
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Controller John Chiang

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.

The 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.”

John Myers is KQED’s Sacramento Bureau Chief. Follow him on Twitter and at his Capital Notes blog.

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About the Author ()

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new 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. In 2014, he was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers. Reach John Myers at jmyers@kqed.org.

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