SACRAMENTO, CA - If a Sacramento judge's tentative ruling stands, the power of the Legislature to define a "balanced" state budget will remain intact, regardless of what some believe is contained in 2010's no-budget, no-paycheck amendment to the California Constitution.
The ruling says that Controller John Chiang "violated the separation of power clause of the Constitution" when he ran his own calculations on the Legislature's original June 2011 budget and subsequently docked legislator salaries for two weeks.
Attorneys for Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento; Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles and Chiang will all be in the courtroom of Sacramento Superior Court Judge David Brown Wednesday. While it's always possible Brown changes his ruling, the tentative decision seems clear that he thinks Chiang was wrong.
For those whose memory is a bit fuzzy on what happened some 10 months ago, a quick refresher: invoking the newly voter-ratified Proposition 25, Chiang argued the "numbers simply didn't add up" in the budget the Legislature sent to Gov. Brown on June 15. That budget was vetoed by Brown for what he said was the same reason, and it was Brown's veto by which Chiang argued that he had the power to deny paychecks.
Fast forward to three months ago, when Democratic legislative leaders sued their fellow Democrat Chiang in a case they argued was about the precedent of the state's executive branch (in this case, Chiang) usurping budget powers vested only to the legislative branch.
The lengthy tentative ruling essentially makes three findings: The power struggle needs to be resolved; the Legislature's power to declare a budget "balanced" under a 2004 voter-approved constitutional amendment is pretty much absolute, the courts -- not the controller -- have the power to review a state budget; and Chiang has (had) no authority to do his own calculations on the budget crafted by legislators.
Judge Brown's key conclusion seems to be the following:
"If [Chiang] has the power to conduct such anassessment, the Controller could subject the budget process to his or her demands. For example, the Controller could determine that future budgets were not balanced based on what could be perceived to be unreasonable conclusions and could take control of the budget process by threatening to withhold pay in the event the Legislature refused to revise the budget in a manner the Controller found acceptable."
That's essentially the same point that legislative leaders Steinberg and Perez made in their court filings.
A spokesman for Steinberg said the Senate leader will withhold comment until the ruling is final. But Chiang lashed out at the decision.
"The court's tentative ruling flies in the face of the voters' will," Chiang said in a statement, "by allowing legislators to keep their salaries flowing by simply slapping the title 'budget act' on a sheet of paper by June 15." His statement says he'll consider his options for appeal.
The ruling does not suggest legislators are due to recover their forfeited paychecks (of about $3,600 for rank-and-file pols). Legislative leaders decided not to ask for the money, though several legislators privately wanted that in the lawsuit when it was filed in January.
The bottom line, though, is the initiative that triggered this fight -- Proposition 25 (easier to pass a state budget, salary penalties for late budgets) -- doesn't necessarily mean the same thing to all people. For now, it appears that the initiative only blocks politician pay based on the calendar ... not on the calculator.