This budget bait and switch benefits California

Capitol Journal

Two years ago, California voters agreed to make it easier for the habitually gridlocked Legislature to pass a state budget — but only under one irksome condition.

Lawmakers — meaning essentially Democrats — could approve a budget on a simple majority vote, rather than the ridiculously burdensome two-thirds that existed for decades. In the future, they could bypass obstinate minority party Republicans.

But here was the provocative caveat: If legislators didn’t pass a balanced budget by their June 15 constitutional deadline, they’d be docked all pay and expense money until they did their job.

Now there has been a bait and switch — the switch ordered by a judge.

No longer is there a paycheck penalty for failing to pass a budget that meets the smell test.

All the Legislature has to do is proclaim that a budget is balanced. Then they can line up at the pay window.

“You could take a piece of paper and write, ‘We estimate revenue will meet spending,’ ” a lawyer for state Controller John Chiang told Sacramento County Superior Court Judge David I. Brown in April.

“And you could wrap it around a ham sandwich, and you could send it over to the governor, and you could call it a budget. And you could keep getting paid. But it’s still a ham sandwich.”

Sandwich paper or not, the judge ruled against the controller and for the Legislature, which had brought the paycheck protection suit. A legislature is entitled to its own budget numbers, he ruled. Otherwise it would be “an unwarranted intrusion into the Legislature’s budget deliberations.”

The law, Proposition 25, only worked as voters had intended for one budget season.

Last June, just beating the deadline, the Legislature passed a gimmicky budget that Gov. Jerry Brown promptly vetoed, denouncing it as unbalanced. Acting on that cue, Chiang then cut off the legislators’ pay, ultimately costing them about $5,000 each before they finally passed a semi-balanced budget.

The controller easily won the popularity contest: a USC Dornsife/Times poll found that 83% of voters liked what he did.

A little background here for nitpickers: Prop. 25 itself didn’t require a budget to be balanced. But a 2004 measure, Prop. 58, did. It forbade the Legislature to pass — or the governor to sign — an unbalanced budget.

But because of the judge’s ruling, which Chiang says he may yet appeal, there is no cop anywhere to enforce the balanced budget law.

“Voters wanted legislators to have their pay docked if they didn’t produce a balanced budget,” Chiang says. “Otherwise, they wouldn’t have gone through the whole exercise.

“They’d have greater trust [in Sacramento] if they knew their will was, in fact, being enforced. This is about the principle of enforcing and protecting what the voters of California want.”

Well, hold on. History is full of policies that California voters wanted, but were deemed unconstitutional by courts. Examples: racial discrimination in housing, denial of public education for illegal immigrants and a ban on same-sex marriage (headed to the U.S. Supreme Court).

Not that legislative pay docking rises to the stature of those civil rights issues. But it illustrates that voters normally cast ballots based on emotion rather than what the Founding Fathers had in mind.

There’s no question that many voters were attracted to the majority-vote initiative because it included a painful pay cut for legislators if they didn’t perform. That was a sweetener added by sponsoring labor unions.

“It was an important part of why voters approved Prop. 25,” says political consultant Richard Temple, a key strategist for the measure.

No one can say whether voters would have approved the measure anyway. It passed by a comfortable 10-point margin.

Regardless, here we are again in budget-bickering week with legislative leaders and the governor — all Democrats — haggling over deeper cuts, mainly to welfare. The Legislature is facing a Friday midnight deadline. But it merely needs to pass something, anything — a sandwich wrapper — to keep getting paid.

Democrats could pass what they’re calling “a placeholder” budget by the deadline, then mold it into an honestly balanced, comprehensive spending plan later.

That’s fine with me.

It’s a vast improvement over pre-Prop. 25 years, when lawmakers would childishly embarrass themselves and California by performing the budget Dance of Death for months, driving down state credit ratings and stiffing business vendors.

And the bait and switch has made the law better.

Docking pay for passing a cruddy budget may have been good populist politics, but it was lousy public policy.

As Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) once told me, if the executive branch can extort legislators into choosing what’s best for their own wallets over what’s best for their constituents, “that ought to be an unacceptable conflict of interest.”

“Think about the reaction there’d be if any member of the Legislature voted for a bill in which they had a direct financial interest. It’s a line that should never be crossed.”

Also, some legislators could afford to lose paychecks more than others. So the penalty wouldn’t be equally applied.

And what about the legislators who tried to pass a credible budget? Should they be slapped along with the lawmakers who would never vote for any budget, no matter the merit?

Then there could be a mischievous, demagogic controller — especially of a rival party — who would cut off legislators’ pay just to advance his gubernatorial ambitions.

Better to keep the branches separate and equal.

The Legislature seems to be producing a relatively honest budget this week. That’s progress. It’s incremental reform.