Republican state senators confer in Sacramento. Before a voter initiative… (Associated Press )
Reporting from Sacramento -- Voters were assured that a ballot measure they passed last fall would punish lawmakers when the state budget is late, docking their pay and perks for every day that a spending plan is overdue.
Now the legislators' deadline is less than a month away, and the budget is nowhere near complete — but their checks could keep coming even if they make no more progress.
Fine print in the initiative, drafted by a labor coalition whose main interest was that it also gave Sacramento's Democratic majority more control over state spending, may have contained an escape hatch.
The law stipulates that merely passing a budget bill — it says nothing about whether the budget is balanced, as California's Constitution also requires — is enough to keep state pay rolling into lawmakers' bank accounts. The Legislature passed a budget bill in March that closed about half of the deficit.
"The language … said the budget bill must be passed," said Greg Schmidt, the Senate's chief administrative officer. "Technically, the budget bill was passed on March 17."
Schmidt said legislative attorneys have told him that what lawmakers must do to get paid "has already been done." A written legal opinion has yet to be drafted, Schmidt said, but officials say such a document is typically a formality.
Anti-tax advocates and good-government groups denounced any plan to pay lawmakers if they don't balance the budget on time.
"This was a sham," said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., who campaigned against the measure. "Voters who approved this thing will feel cheated."
Some groups last year called the measure a bait-and-switch by unions eager to shift away from Republicans the power they had to block state budgets. Before the proposition passed, a budget bill could be approved only with a two-thirds vote of the Legislature, which required some GOP support. That requirement is gone now.
The punishment provision of the proposition, promoted as a way to hold elected officials accountable for their actions, widened its appeal to voters. 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.
"Late budgets cost taxpayers millions of dollars, hurt schools and services, damage California's credit rating and give special treatment to interest groups at the expense of ordinary citizens," said the ballot argument in favor of the measure. "Under the current system, no one is held accountable. This will change under Prop. 25."
"For every day the budget is late, legislators are docked a day's pay plus expenses," the ballot pamphlet stated. "Importantly, they can't pay themselves back when the budget is finally passed."
"From our perspective, the pay provision wasn't the central issue," said Carroll Wills, spokesman for California Professional Firefighters. But lawmakers should not be paid until a true spending plan is approved, he said.
The budget bill passed in March, Wills said, "does not meet the test of the legislation."
Tom Dresslar, a spokesman for state Treasurer Bill Lockyer, who championed the measure, said the law "would be rendered meaningless if lawmakers could collect their paychecks without sending a balanced budget to the governor by the constitutional deadline."
Ultimately, it will be state Controller John Chiang who decides whether lawmakers get paid absent more budget action by June 15. Garin Casaleggio, a spokesman for Chiang, said his office is studying the issue.
Gov. Jerry Brown's administration has taken no position on the matter. "We'll leave it to the lawyers as to how to interpret this," said H.D. Palmer, deputy director of the Department of Finance.
Democratic legislative leaders say their plan is to pass a budget, not seize on a loophole to collect paychecks without one.
"We're committed to finishing the job," said a statement from Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento). "Regardless what the Constitution requires, the public rightly demands that we pass a budget that is timely, balanced, fair and puts our fiscal house in order once and for all."
Republicans who opposed the initiative last year say Californians should be enraged by the possibility that lawmakers could fall short of getting the job done but get paid anyway.
"If voters find out that there's an end run around what they intended," said Sen. Doug La Malfa (R-Richvale), "they will be mad."