On Furloughs, Governor Still Has the Hammer

On one hand, the California Supreme Court gave Gov. Schwarzenegger a hard-fought legal victory Monday by declaring the three-day-a-month unpaid furloughs he imposed on state employees were legal.

On the other, the court's ruling clarified the role of the legislature and governor. The court rejected Schwarzenegger's position that he could unilaterally declare furloughs. The governor's furloughs were legal because they had some legislative sanction -- via lawmakers' approval of a budget.

The question of the relative power of the legislature and the governor is a live one, but it's been striking how it has not been part of the conversation during the gubernatorial campaign. That may be because both contenders, Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman, agree that the governor needs as much power as possible. Given the legislature's inability to come to the two-thirds consensus that California's system requires on fiscal issues, granting more power to governors may make sense -- merely as a way to encourage more timely decision-making.

Instead, the governor's power may be waning, in part because of Schwarzenegger's aggressive attempts to use his power in budget fights like this one over furloughs. The courts have trimmed the governor's discretion in a variety of other areas -- prisons perhaps being most notable. It's hard to blame the governor for this -- he's been boxed in by a broken budget system and economic collapse. But he may leave behind an office that's weaker than the one he inherited.

When Schwarzenegger first contemplated a run for governor, his aides sent him a memo that concluded there are only two public executives in America with more power than a California governor.

One was the president of the United States. The other was the mayor of Chicago.

Is that still true?

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