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California budget: Is state official right to withhold paychecks?

Adding a fresh twist to the California budget saga, California lawmakers must forfeit their pay from June 15 until they pass a balanced budget, a state official ruled Tuesday.

The decision by state Controller John Chiang (D) was a first test of November’s voter-approved Proposition 25, which mandates that state legislators pass a balanced budget by June 15 or lose their pay for each day of delay.

In fact, the Democrat-controlled Legislature did pass a budget by the June 15 deadline – the first on-time state budget in 25 years. But Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed it, saying it was filled with gimmicks. Controller Chiang in effect agreed Tuesday, saying the budget did not balance expenditures and revenues and therefore did not meet the requirements of Prop. 25.

Several political analysts say Chiang made the harder of two choices, alientating his fellow Democrats and putting political pressure squarely on them.

“John Chiang made a gutsy but popular decision today,” says Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies. “He recognized that this budget really wasn’t balanced and was only strung together to meet the deadline. He will not be a welcome guest in the Capitol, but most of the state will applaud this move since most Californians don’t believe the legislators should be paid for anything they do.”

The decision is sure to face a legal challenge from Democratic lawmakers, who say the law does not adequately define a “balanced budget.” Some experts raise similar questions.

“The law is written in shades of gray, and this is the first test of its validity,” says Barbara O’Connor, director emeritus of the Institute for Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento. “My question is: What happens if the controller is not of the majority party and doesn’t like the philosophy behind those that passed the budget?”

Chiang tried explicitly to address that concern.

“Nothing in the Constitution or state law gives the state controller the authority to judge the honesty, legitimacy, or viability of a budget,” he said. “The controller can only determine whether the expected revenues will equal or exceed planned expenditures in the budget, as required by … the Constitution.

“While the vetoed budget contains solutions of questionable achievability – and some to which I am personally opposed – current law provides no authority for my office to second-guess them in my enforcement of Proposition 25,” he added. “My job is not to substitute my policy judgment for that of the Legislature and the governor, rather it is to be the honest broker of the numbers.”

His conclusion: “The numbers simply did not add up, and the Legislature will forfeit their pay until a balanced budget is sent to the governor.”

In short, he said the budget planned to spend $89.75 while taking in $87.9 billion, leaving the state $1.85 billion short.

“He made the decision that voters thought they were getting when they approved Prop. 25,” says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at the School of Policy, Planning, and Development at the University of Southern California. “They clearly wanted to punish legislators for not passing a budget on time, and this is what they got.”

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