The Legislature is about as popular among Californians as the folks who used to run Enron, so there wasn’t a lot of sobbing this week when Controller John Chiang decided to yank lawmakers’ paychecks for failing to pass a balanced budget on time. Yet the controller’s aggressive action sets a terrible precedent, and the voters who are now cheering will be booing in the future unless an ill-advised provision of last year’s Proposition 25 is altered.
Poorly worded or deceptive measures with unforeseen consequences all too frequently end up before California voters, and Proposition 25 is a prime example. We wholeheartedly endorsed the measure because of its most important provision: It did away with the two-thirds voting requirement to pass a budget. The other part of the proposition was such a transparent populist gimmick that it didn’t even seem worth mentioning. It said that if the Legislature didn’t pass a budget by the June 15 constitutional deadline, lawmakers’ pay would be withheld. It’s not likely that many of the people who voted for the initiative intended to make the controller one of the most powerful figures in state government, but that’s just what this provision did.
Legislative Democrats passed a budget bill in March that left the state with a shortfall of nearly $11 billion, hoping to make up the difference by getting Republicans to agree to put an extension of tax increases on the ballot. That didn’t happen, but lawmakers maintained that they should get their paychecks anyway because they’d passed a budget, even if it was an unworkable one. Chiang said no: Although Proposition 25 said nothing about whether the budget had to be “balanced,” other state laws do require a balanced budget, so he vowed to freeze the Legislature’s pay. The exercise was repeated this month. Democrats passed another budget June 15, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed it, and then Chiang ruled that it was $1.85 billion out of balance. So no paychecks.
Never before has the controller had the power to determine whether the state’s budget is balanced and take punitive action as a result. Imagine the mischief this could cause. Let’s say a future governor and controller are rivals from different parties. The Legislature approves a budget on time and the governor signs it, but the controller decides it’s out of balance and withholds lawmakers’ paychecks until they redo the budget to suit his and his minority party’s liking.
Voters have decided that they want to punish lawmakers for late budgets by hitting them in the wallet. That’s their choice, but they need to clean up the mess wrought by Proposition 25. Unfortunately, that will take either intervention by the courts or another ballot measure — this time specifying that if a budget isn’t signed by the governor by July 1, lawmakers’ pay will be withheld, and that the governor’s signature is the only required testament that the budget is balanced.