Controller John Chiang was sued by legislators whose pay he withheld last… (John G. Mabanglo / EPA )
Reporting from Sacramento -- Democratic lawmakers sued state Controller John Chiang on Tuesday, arguing that he misused his power last summer when he docked their pay for passing a budget he said was not balanced.
The lawsuit, filed in Sacramento County Superior Court, does not seek reimbursement of the $583,200 in withheld pay. Lawmakers want the court to bar the controller from doing it again if they approve a budget that they deem balanced.
Chiang, a Democrat, said he was exercising authority given to him by voters when they approved Proposition 25, a constitutional amendment, in 2010. That law punishes lawmakers who fail to pass a budget by the constitutional deadline of June 15.
The dispute pivots on whether the controller can declare the Legislature's budget unsound. Democrats passed a majority budget by the deadline last year, but Chiang said it was not fiscally sound and refused to issue lawmakers' paychecks. Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown later vetoed the budget, siding with Chiang.
At a Capitol news conference Tuesday afternoon, the Legislature's top Democrats said the controller should not be able to make his own determination of the soundness of their budget.
"Neither the governor nor any member of the executive branch may brandish the threat of withholding legislative pay because they disagree with the decisions made by the legislative branch," said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento).
Chiang, in a statement, said he welcomed the review of his authority.
"While nothing in the Constitution gives me the authority to judge the honesty, legitimacy or viability of a budget, it does clearly restrict my authority to issue pay to legislators when they fail to enact a balanced budget by the constitutional deadline of June 15,'' Chiang said.
Tom Del Beccaro, chairman of the California Republican Party, blasted Democrats for trying to "clip the wings of the controller's office. Rather than blame him for calling out their illusory budget from last year, they should look in the mirror and make sure they don't repeat the same charade this year," he said in an interview.
Win or lose, the case could exacerbate the Legislature's image problem. A new survey from the Public Policy Institute of California shows that just 28% of California voters approve of lawmakers' job performance.
"Is the case meritorious? I don't know, but I think it's a public relations disaster for legislators to sue on this," said Loyola Law School professor Jessica Levinson. "To sue for their pay when so many of their constituents don't have a job, don't have the pay that they get and don't have much respect for them is not a good move."
Proposition 25 rewrote the state's budget rules, allowing a spending plan to be passed by a simple majority instead of a two-thirds supermajority in each house. It also included punitive measures, docking legislators' salary and per-diem allowance for each day beyond the deadline that the state goes without a budget.
Most lawmakers make a little more than $95,000 a year plus a $142 daily allowance. Last year, because of Chiang's action, each lost about $5,000.
"The controller misinterpreted and incorrectly applied the constitutional requirements in question," the lawsuit says.
"We believe those actions exceeded the authority of the controller's office," Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez said. "This is fundamentally an issue of separation of powers.''