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California legislators risk voter backlash if they try to use no-pay loophole

California voters passed Proposition 25 to punish lawmakers if they fail to pass a budget by the June 15 deadline. And the budget must be balanced.

May 23, 2011|George Skelton | Capitol Journal
  • California Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), center, has promised that a balanced budget will be passed by the June 15 deadline.
California Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento),… (Rich Pedroncelli, Associated…)

From Sacramento — All the Legislature's vacillation and obstinacy on budget-balancing is about to hit home. Literally. In the lawmakers' own pocketbooks.

At least, that was the idea.

Legislators, we had been told, have until June 15 — their previously ignored constitutional deadline —to pass a state budget or lose pay and expense money.

That hammer was wielded by California voters last November when they approved Proposition 25, the landmark measure that mainly allowed budgets — but not tax increases — to be passed on a simple majority legislative vote.

Now we learn some in the state Capitol are fantasizing that by merely passing a partial spending plan and calling it a budget, this will satisfy the voters' "no budget, no pay" edict.

That seems like strained logic, but no matter. I can't think of a faster way to turn this once-respected institution into the part-time, low-paying body that it was until 44 years ago.

If lawmakers pulled such a stunt, a citizens' initiative to send them home on very short rations and board up the legislative chambers for all but a few months a year would qualify for the ballot at record speed and pass overwhelmingly. That's my guess.

And it would be another unfortunate move by the voters reacting to legislative intransigence and arrogance.

A part-time Legislature would be a mistake for no other reason than it would breed more corruption. Who do you think would sign up most of these moonlighting politicians for part-time work? Special interests.

But hopefully it won't come to that.

You may have read The Times' article Friday by Sacramento reporters Evan Halper and Patrick McGreevy. They reported there's a legal opinion by the Legislature's lawyer asserting that the lawmakers could keep collecting their checks even if they didn't make any more budget progress before the June 15 deadline.

A partial-budget bill the Legislature passed in March that closed about half the state's deficit is sufficient, the theory goes.

"Technically, the budget bill was passed on March 17," said Greg Schmidt, the secretary of the Senate who requested the legal opinion. What lawmakers must do to get paid, he continued, "has already been done."

I'm no lawyer, but this would be fun to watch in court.

To begin with, there's Prop. 58 — the 2004 measure that then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger assured us would mean "tearing up the credit card and throwing it away." Never mind that.

Prop. 58 forbade the Legislature to ever again send the governor a budget that wasn't balanced.

This was in the measure's official title that voters read: "Requires enactment of a balanced budget where general fund expenditures do not exceed estimated general fund revenues." And the actual legal text decreed that "the Legislature may not send to the governor for consideration, nor may the governor sign into law" an unbalanced budget.

Granted, many budgets since then have become unbalanced before the ink dried on the governor's signature. But under no stretch of a fairy tale could the March so-called budget be construed to be balanced.

Gov. Jerry Brown last week placed the latest deficit figure at $10.8 billion.

Back to Prop. 25: It did not remove from the state Constitution the budget-balancing requirement of Prop. 58.

It did proclaim in its official title that "if the Legislature fails to pass a budget bill by June 15, all members of the Legislature will permanently forfeit any reimbursement for salary and expenses for every day until the day the Legislature passes a budget bill."

This was the sweetener that labor union sponsors cleverly inserted into their ballot initiative that principally was about lowering the Legislature's budget-vote hurdle. The idea of punishing quarrelsome, uncompromising politicians by docking their pay strongly appealed to voters.

In the official state voters' guide, Prop. 25 advocates declared that the measure "holds legislators accountable when they fail to do their jobs."

Currently, they've still failed to complete their budget job. And that, sadly, has become very normal for this time of year.

It has been 25 years since the Legislature wrapped up its budget work by June 15. In 2009, it did pass an early budget in February, but lawmakers didn't finish the final plan until late July.

That wreaks havoc in the state. As Prop. 25 proclaimed: "Late budget passage can have a sudden and devastating effect on individual Californians and California businesses." But, it added, "individual legislators have no incentive" to pass an on-time budget.

You'd think they'd want to perform well out of a sense of pride and duty. But recently that hasn't been a strong enough motivator.

Now comes a very compelling inducement: the potential loss of a chunk of their $95,000 pay ($110,000 for leaders) and $142 in tax-free per diem seven days per week.

No wonder some are slinking around, searching for loopholes.

Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) denies any involvement and promises a balanced budget by the deadline.

"The pay issue, of course it matters to members," he told reporters last week. "This is the way we make our living at this time in our lives. But that is not the primary motivation. The motivation is to get the people's business done by June the 15th. Period."

In the Assembly, Speaker John Pérez (D-Los Angeles) indicated he considers the compensation issue moot because "we're going to pass a comprehensive budget solution by June 15."

Good idea. Because, otherwise, I would not want to be a legislator trying to collect a paycheck.

george.skelton@latimes.com

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