Congressman Tom McClintock ran for the state
controller’s job twice when he served in the California legislature. Both times
the vote count went past election night to discover he had lost. The reason he
wanted to gain the controller’s office, McClintock once told me, was that he
believed there was a lot of power in the office that wasn’t being utilized to
direct the fortunes of the state budget.
That suggestion seemed overblown until John
Chiang started flexing the muscles of that office.
A state controller McClintock undoubtedly would
be tackling budget issues differently than Controller Chiang – but it is clear
that Chiang, as the chief fiscal watchdog for the state government, is
enlarging the scope and power of the once relatively obscure office.
One year ago, Chiang battled
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger toe-to-toe over Schwarzenegger’s effort to
limit most state workers to a federal minimum wage during the last state budget
Another year, another budget crisis and now
Chiang is not taking on a Republican or a governor but his fellow Democrats who
serve in the legislature. Chiang says the budget the legislators passed is not
balanced. Therefore, he argues, under the provisions of Proposition 25 they do
not get paid. He’s the check writer and he won’t write the legislators’ checks.
So here we have the controller of the state
staring down a governor and pushing back against an entire legislature. He has
single handily turned the controller’s office into a powerful position.
Some legislators consider testing Chiang’s
latest grab at power. Lawsuits may be in the offing. Senator Noreen Evans charged
Chiang’s action "precipitated a constitutional crisis." In a written statement, Evans wrote, "By
inserting himself into the budgeting process and substituting his judgment for
the Legislature’s, the State Controller has set a dangerous legal precedent."
However, it could be a precedent that stands up. In the
early years of our nation, Chief Justice John Marshall set precedents with no
specific constitutional authorization on judicial review of laws. Marshall’s
doctrine has stood the test of time.
Chiang’s precedent setting action has one powerful ally
in its corner – support from public opinion. If his move withstands a legal
challenge, he would have secured power to his office that will be lasting.
In so doing, he would make the controller’s office a more
desirable landing spot for ambitious politicians – probably some now sitting in
the legislature who are steaming over Chiang’s action.