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Chiang Gets the Lawsuit He’s Looking For

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

Controller John Chiang got a nice little present from Democratic legislators this week when Assembly Speaker John Perez and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg decided to sue him.

Lawsuits, especially one aimed at an ambitious young politician, typically fall into the no-fun-at-all category, leading as they can to pricy court battles that can bring up issues that no one with eyes on higher office wants to deal with.

But that’s what’s so great about the suit by the legislative leaders. They’re attacking Chiang for his decision last year to strip lawmakers of their pay for not passing a balanced state budget by the June 15 deadline.

The pertinent number here is 17 percent. According to a Public Policy Institute of California poll released Wednesday, that’s the percentage of likely voters in the state who approve of the job the Legislature is doing.

It’s a pretty safe bet that Chiang could have called for legislators to pay back any money they collected from the state in 2011 and quack like ducks and most California voters would have cheered.

Of course, the first thing the legislative leaders said is that the suit isn’t about the money and that they weren’t seeking to have lawmakers reimbursed for the $3,500 or so each of them lost in pay and expenses last year.

The controller overstepped his bounds when he refused to issue paychecks, Perez and Steinberg said in a Sacramento news conference Tuesday, and they want to make sure it never happens again.

“This is fundamentally an issue of separation of powers,” Perez said. The real purpose of the suit is “about ensuring a clear budget process for the people of California.”

Still, it’s generally a safe bet that when someone, politician or not, says it’s not about the money, it’s about the money. And state legislators, Democrats and Republicans alike, weren’t happy to lose that cash last year and want to make sure that doesn’t happen again, regardless of what the final budget looks like.

While Democratic legislators generally backed Prop. 25, the 2010 measure that said lawmakers should lose their pay if they don’t send the governor a balanced budget by June 15, it’s not as though any of them thought it would ever happen. But when Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the fiscally shaky first try at a state budget last year, Chiang quickly followed with that first-ever pay ban.

Chiang admitted last June – and again Tuesday — that “nothing in the Constitution or state law gives the state controller the authority to judge the honesty, legitimacy or viability of the state budget,” but Prop. 25 makes it clear that someone has to make the call and Chiang stepped into the void.

But if you follow Steinberg’s reasoning that “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,” then no one but can rule that the budget isn’t balanced and take away that pay.

In essence, the budget is balanced because the Legislature passed it, which I’m guessing isn’t the way voters read Prop. 25.

Chiang, like Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Attorney General Kamala Harris and various other Democrats, has probably already designed “Me for Governor 2014” signs in case Brown decides another term isn’t worth the aggravation. Now he’s faced with the happy chance to defend himself against some of the most unpopular politicians in California by supporting one of the state’s most popular measures in a very visible court battle.

“I welcome the review,” Chiang said in a statement.

You bet. And thanks a lot for the help.

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