Like so many parts of California’s political tapestry, the threads of a state budget are stitched tightly together by the courts. Judges routinely settle fights over the annual spending plan.
But in one key case, settled 30 years ago this fall, the state’s highest court made such a significant change that it’s become easy for elected officials to quietly slip almost anything into the state budget.
“Governors have done it, and legislators have done it,” said Fred Silva, who was a top legislative budget staffer in the 1980s and now advises the bipartisan policy think tank California Forward.
The loophole opened by the 1987 state Supreme Court ruling was an attempt to honor two long-standing rules: Legislation is supposed to be limited to a single subject, and governors can only use their line-item veto when a bill is related to the budget. The lawsuit in question challenged former Gov. George Deukmejian’s attempt to veto an expansion of welfare assistance.
The result was that budgets have become increasingly spread out over a number of different documents — a main budget bill and then a series of bills linked to it, nicknamed “trailer bills,” generally organized by subject matter. Last week, 16 separate pieces of budget-related legislation were sent to Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk.
And that’s where the opening lies for injecting policy and political favors into the only duty that the Legislature has to fulfill every single year. “There is no standard for what constitutes a bill related to the budget,” Silva said.
The first two decades of the “trailer bill” bonanza were marked by a couple of important trends. First, the number of budget-related bills usually grew when recessions hit and money was tight. Lawmakers generally have written more complex budgets to solve deficit problems than those they craft when the state is flush with cash.
And then there were the dozens of controversial side deals that were demanded by legislators who otherwise were reluctant to vote for a budget. Prior to 2010, state budgets were passed by a supermajority vote in both houses of the Legislature. Tucking a pet project into a budget “trailer bill” was often necessary. In 2002, during one of Sacramento’s longest budget stalemates, Democrats agreed to create a tax break for farmers and to earmark state dollars for a Riverside County swimming pool.
In 2014, the solar industry persuaded Democrats to quietly amend a “trailer bill” to extend a property tax reduction for homeowners who install solar panels. The proposal was never debated in public, but was still signed into law. Last week, the budget-related bills were used to strip significant powers away from the California Board of Equalization and to make significant revisions to the rules covering special elections to recall a lawmaker from office.
"Trailer bills are a box of chocolates, and you never know what you're going to get,” state Sen. Richard Roth (D-Riverside) joked during last week’s floor debate.
The one inflexible rule for a budget-related bill over the last three decades has been that it include an appropriation — that it spends money. Again, there’s no real standard as to whether it’s $10 or $100,000.
Influential interest groups know the rush of budget action presents an ideal opportunity to win support for pet projects. And there’s a deadline; lawmakers now face the prospect of no paycheck for missing the June 15 budget deadline.
Powerful groups also know something else: Bills related to the state budget take effect as soon as a governor signs them, and they aren’t subject to being overturned by a statewide ballot referendum. In Sacramento, it seems, nothing is more of a sure thing than what’s included in the budget.