Controller John Chiang, in a 2006 photo. (Los Angeles Times )
Californians: Do you know who John Chiang is? You should, because you inadvertently made him one of the most powerful people in the state.
If you guessed that Chiang is the Golden State's controller, you get high marks (and extra wonk credit if you can list what, precisely, the controller does). Chiang became much more controlling than the average controller after voters passed Proposition 25 in November 2010, the initiative that wisely did away with the two-thirds vote requirement for the Legislature to pass a budget. It also contained a less-heralded provision declaring that lawmakers' pay would be withheld if they failed to pass a budget by the June 15 constitutional deadline.
You can probably guess what happened when June 2011* rolled along: They didn't pass a budget. Actually, technically they did, but it was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown. Chiang subsequently ruled that the budget wasn't balanced because it left a $1.85-billion hole unfilled, and he withheld the Legislature's paychecks for nearly two weeks. This set off a festering legal dispute that comes to a head Tuesday, when a Superior Court judge in Sacramento will hear the case of Steinberg, Perez vs. Chiang.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) and Assembly Speaker John A. Perez (D-Los Angeles) are suing Chiang for asserting powers not granted to him by the state Constitution -- nor, they claim, by Proposition 25, which didn't specifically give the controller the power to rule on whether the state's budget is in balance or not. That's a pretty awesome power: If one person gets such authority over what is perennially the most divisive and critical issue in California politics, it could completely change the way the state is governed. And probably not in a good way; as we pointed out in an editorial last year, future controllers might be able to wreak all kinds of political havoc. A Republican controller who's annoyed by a Democratic budget, for example, might be able to throw a monkey wrench into the process by declaring the budget unbalanced, not only resulting in held paychecks for lawmakers but costly delays that could paralyze state government.
Perez and Steinberg argue that by declaring the budget unbalanced, Chiang substituted his judgment for that of the Legislature, an unconstitutional breach of the separation of powers. Chiang, meanwhile, asserts that he's only doing what voters asked when they approved Proposition 25. Perez and Steinberg have the better case, and though they're being criticized for using court time in a fight for their own paychecks, it's a bit frightening to think about what will happen if they lose.
The controller shouldn't be able to hold the Legislature for ransom. If Californians really want to punish lawmakers for not passing a spending blueprint on time, there are better ways. One would be to simply mandate that their pay will be withheld if the governor doesn't sign a budget by July 1, leaving the question of whether it's balanced up to the governor and Legislature, where it belongs.
* The original version of this post mistakenly said June 2012
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