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Do Schwarzenegger's cuts cross the line?

With his budget vetoes, the governor may have overstepped his constitutional authority.

August 05, 2009

This year's budget process has been like a drive from Los Angeles to Sacramento on I-5, on a hot August day, without air-conditioning or cruise control. Long, dreary, grueling. But finally over? Not necessarily. Several would-be plaintiffs are considering filing suit to block Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's July 28 vetoes, which purported to cut an additional $489 million, mostly in human services programs, from the already slashed California budget. Controller John Chiang, who writes the state's checks, is studying the budget to determine whether he must, or even can, respect the vetoes.

It's as if we got out of the car expecting to see the Capitol and discovered we were still in Stockton. We didn't reach our destination, but we're tired. Shouldn't we just stop here?

No, we shouldn't. This journey must end at some point, but Schwarzenegger's blue-penciling amounts to something beyond run-of-the mill line-item vetoes. It raises troubling questions about the power and purview of the governor and about whether he can take for himself some of the authority to impose midyear spending cuts that he has tried, and failed, to win at the ballot box. California needs to know the answers.

Remember that the Legislature passed, and the governor signed, a budget in February. That spending plan proved insufficient after voters rejected a May 19 tax-and-reform package and as revenue fell well short of earlier projections. But the February budget was in place, with appropriations adopted by the constitutionally required two-thirds supermajority.

Last month, lawmakers sent Schwarzenegger a package of appropriations and cuts, and no one disputes the governor's power to veto any of the appropriations. But he also vetoed some of the cuts, not to reject them but to deepen them -- to, in effect, use the opportunity presented by the Legislature's majority-vote cuts to reopen appropriations that the Legislature made, and that he signed, in February. But if an appropriation requires a two-thirds vote, and if a cut is adopted on a simple majority, how can it be deemed an appropriation?

California vests lawmaking power in the Legislature and properly limits the executive by allowing him to veto appropriations, line-by-line if he likes, but not to unilaterally alter those already on the books.

Human services providers want to restore some of the cuts that never got legislative approval, and it's hard to blame them. But there's an even more important reason to subject the vetoes to scrutiny: They amount to a power shift -- one that may well be outside the lines of the state Constitution and beyond the principle of separation of powers.

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