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Fall ballot shuffle by Legislature illegal, says court

3:48 PM, Jan 18, 2013   |    comments
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On the surface, a new court ruling over the California Legislature's shuffling of the November 2012 ballot would seem to have come too late to matter.

But there's a larger issue at hand: the limits of legislative power to decree almost anything to be a 'budget related' bill.

The ruling by a state appeals court on Friday, in short, says it was illegal for the Legislature last year to move Gov. Jerry Brown's tax initiative to the top of the November ballot.  It is a reversal of a lower court ruling which sided with Democratic legislators.

(Read appeals court ruling here)

"Enacting Assembly Bill No. 1499 as urgency legislation by a simple majority was unconstitutional," says the 14-page ruling in the case Jarvis v. Bowen.

The plaintiffs, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, originally went to court to stop Brown's tax increase from being moved from its original spot on the long November ballot -- near the bottom -- to the top.

The bill which allowed the measure to ultimately become Proposition 30, was amended in late June of last year to allow all constitutional amendments and bond measures to receive top billing on statewide ballots.  Being at the top of a very long ballot, say experts, affords a proposition a much better chance of passage.

The new appeals court ruling doesn't necessarily ban future ballot shuffling, but it does seem to place some limits on whether bills are really 'budget related' just because legislators deem them so.

The bill that ultimately shuffled the fall ballot "was nothing but a number, a placeholder, an empty vessel at the time the budget bill was passed," says the appeal court ruling.

As a result, the justices write, the Legislature overreached.  And they argue the issue remains relevant because it's all about what the voters intended when they passed Proposition 25 in 2010.

It was Prop 25 that made state budgets easier to pass, allowing only a simple majority vote in each house for the main budget legislation and all related bills.  Critics at the time argued that too many things would become decreed as 'budget related' because supermajority votes in the Legislature are so rare.

While critics of the 2012 ballot machinations are celebrating, they didn't get everything they wanted -- namely, the appeals court took a pass on the question of whether bills containing even small amounts of money could legally be called a "budget" bill.

Legislative leaders declined to comment until they had reviewed the ruling.

The real takeaway from the case is the complexity of otherwise simple sounding ballot measures.  After all, Prop 25 seemed like a simple change to the Legislature's budget process.  But as with so many laws passed by voters, the operating instructions are often left up to the courts to put in place.

simply by tacking on a small amount of money to be spent -- which is how legislative Democrats were able to take action on a simple majority vote. It was 2010's Proposition 25

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