California Legislators Forfeit Pay over Budget Failure

John Chiang (California politician)
California State Controller John Chiang via Wikipedia

No Budget, No Payday!

That was the stunning decision yesterday by California State Controller John Chiang.  Under California law the State Legislature must adopt a balanced budget (Proposition 58) and they must do so by June 15th by a simple majority vote instead of the previously required 2/3 vote (proposition 25).

But the budget the Legislature approved was so full of gimmicks that Governor Jerry Brown, also a Democrat, vetoed it and State Treasurer Bill Lockyer, said he could not finance it.


Yesterday the other shoe dropped when State Controller John Chiang, also a Democrat, said the Legislature failed to meet the tests under both Proposition 58 to pass a balanced budget and Proposition 25 to do so on time.  Therefore, he was just following the law (Proposition 25) and ordered that the Legislators would forfeit about $260 per day in salary and $142 in tax-free travel and living expenses.  Under Prop 25 that money is forfeited meaning it cannot be later paid back once the budget is adopted.

Since the Legislature is a full-employment act for politicians with members making $95,291 getting cut off cold-turkey is the voters’ equivalent of a furlough, and legislators are not accustomed to being disciplined especially by other Democrat elected officials.

The Democrat Legislative Leaders were furious believing Governor Brown stabbed them in the back. The Republicans were largely quiet observing the age old political proverb—‘when your opponent is committing suicide, let him’.

Brown told the Legislative leaders to go back to the budget negotiating table and try to talk the Republicans into a short-term extension of the current sales and income tax increases and to allow voters to decide whether to extend them further.  Otherwise he told the Legislature to send him a budget with cuts deep enough to close the $9.6 billion gap.

The Controller’s action was refreshingly gutsy and the blogosphere was alive with calls of “Chiang for Governor.”  In the short-term Chiang’s action strengthens the hand of Governor Jerry Brown in getting the Legislature to act responsibly enough to allow State Treasurer Bill Lockyer to sell the bonds needed to keep the state in cash.

Republican have resisted calls for a tax extension arguing that past use of that strategy has resulted in the Legislature spending all the money and then some.  The problem Republicans have is voters surveyed have repeatedly said they want the opportunity to vote up or down on taxes.  So if Republicans continue to hold out they risk irritating voters on a core issue.  But voters also passed Prop 25 reducing the vote needed in the Legislature to approve the budget to a simple majority thus depriving the minority party—almost always Republicans in California—the ability to hold the budget hostage.  So Democrats have the votes but not the will to adopt a balanced budget making deep cuts, but they don’t have the votes to call a special election on the tax questions.

Checkmate as usual—but this time no paycheck as usual.


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