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California and the West

Court Blocks Judge's Curb on State Spending

July 29, 1998|DAN MORAIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — A state appellate court Tuesday blocked a Los Angeles judge's order issued last week that jolted Sacramento's budget negotiations by threatening to shut down California's government until a spending plan was ready.

In a brief order signed by Justices Morio Fukuto and John Zembrowski, the state Court of Appeal in Los Angeles agreed to hear an appeal by unions representing state public employees, saying the unions "demonstrated that substantial issues will be raised on the appeal."

That order effectively blocked Superior Court Judge Robert O'Brien's ruling last week that Controller Kathleen Connell could not pay billions of dollars in state bills until a new budget was in place or lawmakers approved legislation authorizing her to make the payments.

"We're thrilled," said Dennis Trujillo, a spokesman for unions representing state engineers and scientists who appealed O'Brien's order. Tuesday's decision "will make sure that . . . state workers get paid."

No date has been set for a hearing, and the appellate court ruling is academic for now. A day after O'Brien's decision, Gov. Pete Wilson signed emergency legislation allowing Connell to pay more than 200,000 state employees, 2 million welfare recipients and dozens of state bills. However, that stopgap measure expires Aug. 5.

Jonathan Coupal, an attorney for the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., which brought the suit that led to O'Brien's ruling last week, said the appellate court's decision to hear the case does not indicate that the justices will side with the unions and Connell.

However, he said, the ruling "does a disservice to the taxpayers who are entitled" to have lawmakers comply with constitutional requirements that they pass a budget on time. "Now they can go to December if they want," Coupal said.

Wilson and legislative leaders are already a month past the July 1 constitutional deadline for a spending plan. After a hiatus Tuesday, they planned to resume negotiations today. In a statement, Wilson said Tuesday's appellate decision "should in no way delay us from completing and passing a budget as quickly as possible."

Chances are slim that they will complete the task by Aug. 5. Several significant issues remain unresolved, and even when an agreement is reached, the work of writing the budget will take a week.

Meanwhile, a separate appeal by Connell of O'Brien's decision is pending before the state Supreme Court.

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