When Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger announced that he would sign an order to pay state employees at federal minimum wage until the budget is resolved, I got that Yogi Berra feeling: It’s déjà vu all over again.
You see, the court ruling that the governor is relying on came out of a lawsuit I filed a decade ago during another budget crisis in 1998. The case of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association vs. State Controller Kathleen Connell was intended to pressure legislators into coming to terms with the budget. We contended that the state constitution prohibited any spending in the new fiscal year without the authorized budget in place.
A Los Angeles judge agreed, ordering Controller Connell not to pay employees or contractors. The next day, the Legislature passed an emergency spending plan that allowed the employees to be paid.
Later, an appellate court declared that workers must receive the federal minimum wage during budget deadlocks.
The state Supreme Court unanimously upheld this appellate decision in 2003 heading into another budget delay.
Steve Westly was the controller at the time and basically said: Forget it, I’m paying the workers their full wage if it comes to that, just as John Chiang said in response to the announcement of the governor’s plans.
Does this method of pressure work? Yes and no. In 1998 it certainly got the Legislature to jump into action. But, in the long run it has not encouraged legislators to meet their duty by the constitutional deadline, which was part of the reason for the initial lawsuit.
We have gone through this exercise in 1998, 2003, and 2008. Every five years are we going to threaten public employees with short paychecks? The fault lies with the legislators not coming to grip with their responsibility to get the budget done by the prescribed deadline. That frustration promoted the initial lawsuit.
I can understand Governor Schwarzenegger’s disappointment. He’s trying to make things happen.
Frankly, I liked the governor’s first idea — Lock the legislative leaders in a room and don’t let them out until they reach a budget agreement.