Capitol Journal: This California budget gimmick stinks

The California Capitol building in Sacramento.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

You probably thought a state budget divvied up all the Sacramento tax money and parceled it to a zillion programs. It does. But these days it also can do things that past legislators never dreamed possible.

For example, a budget can — and did last week — change recall election rules to protect one of the Democrats’ own and dismantle a constitutionally ensconced, scandal-plagued tax board.

Neither of these moves — and others — had anything to do with budgeting. They had to do with making major policy changes under the guise of budgeting without giving the public much time to think about it.


Credit — or blame — the unintended consequences of reform. Democrats cheer them. Republicans usually curse.

Let’s back up. The Legislature used to embarrass itself nearly every summer by fuming and fussing over a budget, dawdling far into the new fiscal year without a spending plan. It stiffed local governments and private vendors. Seven years ago it stumbled all the way into the fall before finally passing a budget on Oct. 8.

That was enough. Voters got smart. That November, they approved a Democratic-backed ballot initiative to reduce the legislative vote requirement for passing a budget from a gridlocking two-thirds to a simple majority. And they decreed that if it wasn’t passed by June 15, lawmakers be smacked with a harsh penalty: They’d lose their pay.

Here’s how $183 billion in taxpayer dollars will be spent in California’s new budget »

Legislators have met the deadline ever since. Budgets have been enacted before the new fiscal year begins on July 1.

The dynamics of budgeting have changed dramatically. Not only is it much easier to pass a budget — Democrats can do it alone without buying off Republicans — but a handy side-tool has been refined: the “trailer bill.”

Those are separate bills that trail the budget, ostensibly to implement it. Like the budget bill, they take effect immediately. But unlike the budget, they often are created in the dark without much legislative or public scrutiny.

Trailer bills have been around for many years. But they previously were tools mainly for paying pork to holdouts — usually Republicans — who finally agreed to support the budget. Those purchased votes no longer are needed. But trailer bills still live.

They’re mostly used now by Democrats for slipping through touchy new policy. Stick a few token bucks in a bill and it becomes part of the budget. It sails through the Legislature on a partisan vote.

“These bills are clever, they’re Machiavellian and too cute by half,” Sen. John Moorlach (R-Costa Mesa) complained during the Senate budget debate.

The trailer bill that really angered and surprised Republicans was one designed to protect freshman Democratic Sen. Josh Newman of Fullerton from a recall attempt.

The bill, supported by Gov. Jerry Brown, stretches out the recall process and practically ensures that voters won’t be allowed to cast ballots until the June 2018 primary election. That will guarantee a much bigger voter turnout than what there’d be at a lightly attended special recall election later this year. Democrats historically do better with larger turnouts.

The sneaky bill stinks. But so does the attempted recall. Ostensibly it’s to oust Newman for voting to raise gas taxes and car registration fees to finally fund repair of crumbling highways. Sorry, but making one tough vote is not a valid reason for recalling a lawmaker. Anyway, the real Republican goal is to eliminate the Democrats’ Senate supermajority.

Signature collectors are falsely telling people they can sign a recall petition and “stop the car tax.” Baloney. That would require a separate repeal initiative.

But Democrats sullied themselves by tucking their recall-protector into a broad-sweeping “state administration” bill and barely mentioning its true purpose during the Assembly debate. What’s more, another part of the measure could lead to development of a new veterans’ cemetery in Southern California, making a “no” vote potentially toxic politically. Republicans found that in particular poor taste.

“It broke my heart to see this bald-faced political move,” said Assemblyman Dante Acosta (R-Santa Clarita), whose military son was killed in Afghanistan. “If you want to get my ire up, you’ll do this kind of thing.”

In the other house, Senate leader Kevin De León (D-Los Angeles) asserted that Newman “is being threatened by one of the most cynical, shameless and fraudulent abuses of California election law.”

Democrats are afraid that if the GOP pulls this off, the party will keep using the strategy to whittle away at the Democratic majority in more low-turnout recalls. So they’re misusing the budget to outflank the right.

Republicans can’t expect good government tactics when they’re engaged in cynical opportunism.

Good government, however, is justification for eviscerating the obscure state Board of Equalization. Its demise is long past due and has been discussed for decades. The Legislature finally acted after a highly critical state audit reported the misuse of money and staff, and political shenanigans.

Completely abolishing the five-member elected board would require voter approval of a constitutional amendment. So the simple trailer bill — stripping out 90% of the board’s duties and giving them to a new state tax department — is the next best thing. And Brown will sign it.

“This is 90 years too late,” Sen. Mike McGuire (D-Healdsburg) asserted during the debate, citing a history of scandal.

“Whistle blower after whistle blower has called,” said Assembly Budget Committee Chairman Phil Ting (D-San Francisco).

For the record, the state budget will total $183 billion.

And it has morphed into a Magic Marker for rewriting all manner of public policy, a legislative game change.

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