Column: Sacramento lawmakers aren’t fooling anyone with California’s budget charade

California Gov. Gavin Newsom leaves the stage after delivering his budget proposal.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom leaves the stage after delivering his budget proposal in Sacramento in January.
(José Luis Villegas / Associated Press)
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The California Legislature has passed another so-called on-time state budget. Wink, wink. It’s barely a half-baked budget.

Voters in 2010 passed a ballot measure that required lawmakers to adopt an annual budget by June 15 or they wouldn’t be paid.

Ever since, they’ve followed the letter of the law, but not the spirit. On party-line votes, they’ve passed the broad outline of a budget before their deadline, but without the needed details on many disputed items.


In the Capitol, it’s dubbed the “paycheck” budget.

The negotiated nitty-gritty comes later in “trailer” bills. And dollar amounts are updated in a “budget junior” that amends the original paycheck version.

So, the politicians have found a legal way around the voters’ edict. They still get paid, but it has become common for the budget — that takes effect July 1 — not to be completely wrapped up until late August or even September, at the end of the legislators’ annual session.

The truth is, however, that their new budgeting process is still tons better than the irresponsible, corrupt games playing that occurred before voters passed the 2010 reforms.

The key reform was to lower the required vote for legislative passage of a budget to a simple majority. Before that, the budget required a steep two-thirds supermajority — an increasingly impossible vote to attain without pork payoffs to some lawmakers that only jacked up spending.

The budget was invariably held hostage by legislators — usually minority party Republicans — seeking special deals for their districts or political favors for themselves.

The governor and legislative leaders squabbled long into the steamy Sacramento summer.

There was a theory that the unrelenting Central Valley sun seared politicians’ brains. Noggins fried, lawmakers heard devil music and they did the “Dance of Death.”


A senior legislative staffer once explained the ritual to me this way: “Everybody dances around the fire. They throw stuff at us. We throw stuff at them. Everybody falls over dead and we start all over.”

It made for easy column writing — but lousy governing.

In most years between 1990 and 2010, no part of the budget was enacted until at least July, and often in August or September — even once in October.

Thousands of private vendors who supplied the state with goods and services got stiffed after July 1. State workers were issued IOUs instead of paychecks one summer. International financiers showed up once to monitor the budgeting, demanding proof that Sacramento could repay borrowed money, as if it were a Third World country.

In 2010, the state almost ran out of toilet paper in state parks. Or maybe it did.

An email circulated within then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Finance Department read: “Bottom line — remote rural state parks will likely run out of toilet paper by early October.” Banks had canceled the state credit card for lack of payment.

The budget wasn’t passed until Oct. 7. I never followed up to learn whether it was in time to restock the park privies.


Fewer than a handful of today’s legislators were lawmakers during those bad old days.

“It was a huge mess,” recalls Sen. Tom Umberg (D-Orange), who was an Assembly member in the 1990s and again in the 2000s.

Today “is like the Gulf War compared to World War II.”

But for a moderate Democrat from a competitive Orange County district, it could be “quite a heady experience,” he says. “I was a [reelection] target. Republicans weren’t going to put up their votes unless I put up mine. So I got a chance to hang out with the governor [Republican Pete Wilson] two or three times and get the lecture:

“‘You were in the service. You understand sometimes you have to make sacrifices. This is a time when people’s fortitude is tested.’ Blah, blah, blah. I voted for it.”

Sen. John Laird (D-Santa Cruz) was the Assembly Budget Committee chairman in 2008.

“It was painful because we had no control over it,” he says of the summer-long gridlock.

“I got in trouble with [then-Speaker, now Los Angeles Mayor] Karen Bass because I went to the Obama Democratic convention. The budget wasn’t adopted and I was in Denver. The appearance wasn’t good. I came back and missed Obama’s historic acceptance speech. I didn’t even get to vote. It was crazy.”

Sen. Roger W. Niello (R-Fair Oaks) was an Assembly member early in the Great Recession, one of the few current lawmakers who were members of the Legislature when it faced huge deficits and was forced to cut spending deeply.

“It was frustrating,” he says. “Constituents got antsy. They’d tell me, ‘I sent you there to do your job.’ I’d reply, ‘We could have passed a budget on June 30 if we’d agreed to these things….’ Then they’d say, ‘Maybe holding out was worth it.’ ”


At least on the June 15 deadline this year, the Legislature passed the basic framework of a $312-billion budget.

Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislative leaders — all Democrats — are still haggling over key issues. They include child care, healthcare and transit spending, plus prison closures and the governor’s late-entry proposal to streamline major infrastructure projects and shorten environmental lawsuit delays.

The process is too secretive and exclusive. Republicans are ignored because their meager votes aren’t needed. That’s regrettable because it veers the budget too far left.

But overall, budgeting today is vastly improved over the past bitterness and chaos. At least the state now is capable of providing toilet paper for park visitors.