Commentary: One party budget scam failed voters

Reform is necessary to restore voters' faith and enforce forfeiture of legislator pay.

The lawsuit filed by Assembly Democrats challenging the state controller's decision to rightfully withhold legislator pay is a slap in the face to every Californian who expects the Legislature to do one of its most fundamental jobs: pass a budget by the June 15 constitutional deadline.

Last year, the Legislature did not pass a balanced budget by June 15. The controller withheld members' pay. Now a group of Democratic Assembly members have filed a lawsuit challenging the controller's decision. They seek a declaration that the Legislature alone has the authority to determine whether its budget balances. In seeking this declaration, they expose one of the biggest scams ever perpetuated on California's voters.

In 2010, California voters passed Proposition 25. They were told that Proposition 25 would withhold legislator pay whenever they fail to pass a balanced budget by June 15. This sounds good, but Proposition 25 was drafted in a way that the pay forfeiture provisions would be ineffective. This was deliberate. The proponents never imagined that legislators would actually lose pay. Instead, the whole measure was a ruse intended to create a one-party budget process that opened one of the biggest legislative loopholes we've ever seen. The scam worked.

Legislative rules require a two-thirds vote to pass an "urgency" item. An urgency item is a measure that can immediately take effect. The budget is an urgency item. When Proposition 25 changed budget votes to a simple majority, it created a loophole allowing bills to immediately take effect, without a two-thirds vote, as long as the bill is linked to a token expenditure in the budget. Furthermore, these bills are only heard in the budget committee and bypass the usual committee process.

The result of this loophole is that new regulations can be created behind closed doors and passed without ever having a public hearing in a policy committee that specializes in the bill's subject matter. Once passed, these regulations can take effect immediately without any notice to those who are affected.

It gets worse. The one-party budget did more damage than open a loophole. It allowed Democrats to pass a budget that cut education funding even though overall spending in the state increased. Democrats showed that their pet projects and political paybacks are more important than educating our future. It only took one year for it to be clear that the one-party budget is a failed experiment. California needs a more transparent and bipartisan budget process.

Californians imposed the one-party budget on themselves in exchange for a false promise that legislators would lose their pay if they don't pass a balanced budget. It's true that Proposition 25 requires that legislators forfeit their pay, but Proposition 25 does not specify who enforces the forfeiture.

Last year, when the Legislature did not pass a balanced budget, the controller asserted the power of enforcement. Now he's being sued. Without an enforcement provision, the lawsuit might be successful. If the lawsuit is successful, it goes without saying that the Legislature will always determine that their budget balances, even when it doesn't.

I have introduced a constitutional amendment that will address these problems. Two things need to happen. First we need to fix the one-party budget scam and go back to a bipartisan, two-party budget process. To do this, we will restore the two-thirds vote requirement for all budget bills.

Then we need to fulfill Proposition 25's promise to California's voters. To do that we need to add an enforcement mechanism to the provisions requiring forfeiture of Legislator pay. The proposed change will require that the controller withhold legislator pay if the Legislative Analyst's Office does not certify that the budget balances.

This provision is not perfect, but there is no better option. While I don't always agree with the LAO's analysis, it is already responsible for budget analysis, and the LAO is not as close to the political process as the controller, treasurer or governor. Distancing this decision from the political process is positive because determining whether the budget balances should be about math, not politics.

The proposal is simple. If enacted, it will give Californians something they thought they already had, and it will neutralize the poison pill buried in a proposition full of empty promises.

Assemblyman ALLAN MANSOOR is a Republican from Costa Mesa. He is seeking reelection in the 74th District.

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