A Budget with Loose Threads

Joel Fox
Editor and Co-Publisher of Fox and Hounds Daily

The legislature is expected to pass the budget bill today thus satisfying the demand of 2010’s Proposition 25 that required the budget to be passed on time so that legislators may continue to get paid. But when legislators vote on the budget bill before June 15 are they really passing a complete budget?

Legislators admit the budget has placeholder language to be filled in later and will pass budget trailer bills that can have an impact on the state’s final spending plan.

Given those conditions can we really admit that the budget has been passed by the June 15th deadline?

The legal definition maybe satisfied, but clearly what we witness is legislative gamesmanship to get around the penalty provisions of docking pay before completing work on the budget.

Legal action has been taken against trailer bills in the past. The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association has litigation against trailer bills that is still pending with the Third District Court of Appeal.

Many may remember the court challenge to a bill that allowed Gov. Jerry Brown to finagle the law and place his tax raising Proposition 30 ahead of other ballot measures on the 2012 ballot. That was made possible with a trailer bill that the legislature claimed was budget related because it attached a $1000 spending component to implement the legislation that changed the order of measures to be placed on the ballot. Under the new rules provided by the trailer bill, Brown’s measure gained the top spot he wanted.

A lawsuit was filed against these shenanigans. While the court did not want to interfere with the legislative process, it raised concern over the legislature including placeholder bills with nothing referenced that are filled in later.

An effort to implement the legislative pay loss provision by Controller John Chiang for withholding pay because a budget that was passed in 2011 was not balanced—a requirement in the state constitution—also was rejected by the court.

Courts are loath to interfere with legislative prerogatives.

Moving beyond the legal debate, the focus should be on whether the legislature truly passes a budget by June 15 if more budget action is needed. Some trailer bills are statutory changes needed to implement the budget. But, the trailer bills are also a place to make mischievous creating changes to the law while allowing legislators to avoid the penalty of losing their pay.

The courts and the voters should pause to consider if a budget is truly passed with all these loose threads hanging off that have to be snipped away after the budget deadline of June 15.

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