"Our focus needs to be on doing our job and passing a balanced budget,"… (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated…)
Reporting from Sacramento -- California lawmakers will start losing their pay in two weeks if they don't complete a balanced budget, state Controller John Chiang announced Thursday.
Chiang, the state's chief accountant, said a ballot measure passed in November requires him to dock legislators' pay unless they approve a balanced spending plan by the June 15 deadline specified in the California Constitution.
His interpretation of the measure differs from that of lawyers in the state Senate, who recently said that a budget bill lawmakers passed in March — which left the state with a nearly $11-billion shortfall — met the conditions to keep salaries flowing. But Chiang issues the checks.
"In passing Proposition 25 last November, voters clearly stated they expect their representatives to make the difficult decisions needed to resolve any budget shortfalls by the mandatory deadline, or be penalized," Chiang said in a statement. "I will enforce the voters' demand."
Legislative leaders expressed support for the controller's decision, despite earlier hedging and statements from their staff that lawmakers were entitled to collect their pay regardless of whether any further action was taken on the budget.
"The controller's decision resolves any questions about the Legislature's obligations under Proposition 25," Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) said in a statement. "I support the controller's conclusion."
Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles) said in a statement: "I do not believe we should even be talking about loopholes or ways to get around that provision, because our focus needs to be on doing our job and passing a balanced budget."
The controller's announcement comes amid legislative gridlock on a spending plan.
Gov. Jerry Brown continues to push lawmakers to pass tax increases and place them on the ballot for voters to ratify. But he needs four GOP votes in the Legislature for both moves, and no Republicans have signed onto his plans.
Brown welcomed the controller's announcement Thursday, expressing hope that it would put pressure on the Legislature to make progress in budget negotiations.
"Of course they shouldn't get paid" if the budget is not on time, Brown said at a National Guard ceremony in Sacramento.
"Maybe we'll get our budget," he said. "That's the purpose" of the measure.
The proposition was promoted last fall as a way to hold elected officials accountable for their actions. Polls consistently showed that Californians wanted lawmakers to pass budgets on time or pay a price. Literature from the campaign, funded largely by teacher, nurse and firefighter unions, stressed that legislators could suffer financially.
But the main goal of the unions was giving Sacramento's Democratic majority more control over the state budget. The measure included a provision lowering the legislative vote threshold for approval of a spending plan. Previously, a budget bill could be approved only with a two-thirds vote, which required some GOP support; that requirement is now gone, although tax increases still need two-thirds approval.
Anti-tax groups that had opposed the measure expressed outrage last month when some legislative staff members indicated that lawmakers had an escape hatch from the pay provision of the new law. Senate staffers pointed to language stipulating simply that passing a budget bill is enough to keep state pay rolling into lawmakers' bank accounts.
The new law says nothing about whether the budget must be balanced, but California's Constitution requires a balanced spending plan. The Legislature passed a budget bill in March that closed about half of the state's projected deficit.
A legal analysis by the controller's office concludes that legislative action on state spending qualifies as a "budget bill" only if it actually balances the budget. By that determination, lawmakers' earlier spending actions fall short.
State law "requires a forfeit of legislator's pay after June 15, and until such time as they present a 'balanced' budget to the Governor," says the analysis by attorneys in the controller's office.
However, lawmakers could present the governor with a budget that, although technically balanced, papers over the deficit with accounting gimmicks and other financial schemes.
Brown has vowed to veto any spending plan that relies on bookkeeping tricks.
Times staff writer Michael J. Mishak contributed to this report.