Lawmaker Pay Fight Whipsaws Voters

Voters thought Prop 25 would punish lawmakers for a late budget, but not so fast

John Chiang in Parlimentary wig cropped

When Democrats convinced voters in 2010 to approve Proposition 25, which changed the voting requirement for passing the state budget from two-thirds to a simple majority, an important sweetener was included.

If lawmakers failed to pass a balanced plan on time, the initative said, then their pay would be withheld.

Backers of Prop 25 sold the plan on the argument that the two-thirds requirement was a recipe for gridlock.

But they knew voters would be suspicious of anything that would make it easier to increase spending. So, they added a deal-closer.

Unless a budget was passed by June 15th, the constitutional deadline, lawmakers would forfeit their pay. Voters, unhappy with the legislature, were sold.

Why not punish them for failing to do their job in a timely manner? Prop 25 worked as billed last year.

Gov. Jerry Brown, in a dramatic gesture, vetoed the initial spending plan as unbalanced.

State Controller John Chiang stepped in and put the brakes on lawmaker paychecks. By the time a new budget was passed, those legislators lost 12 days' worth of pay.

But that was then. A Sacramento Superior Court judge issued a ruling Wednesday, saying Chiang had no authority to sit on those paychecks.

In fact, the legislature's attorney accused Chiang of appointing himself "king".

Chiang is not pleased.

The ruling, he said, "flies in the face of voters's will by allowing legislators to keep their salaries flowing by simply slapping the title 'budget act' on a sheet of paper by June 15th."

Democrats who sued Chiang say it's an important issue dealing with separation of powers. Chiang's move intrudes on the powers of the legislative branch.

That constitutional question is genuine. But you can't blame voters for feeling they were sold a bill of goods. If they voted for Prop 25 thinking lawmakers would face consequences for being late, that's no longer the case.

The ruling gives lawmakers an important leg up. And it's a reminder to voters. Initiatives are often flawed measures that don't live up to their billing, once they've been through the whipsaw of the courts.

Kevin Riggs is an Emmy-award winning former TV journalist in Sacramento. He is currently Senior Vice-President at Randle Communications

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