Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Assembly Speaker John Perez took a big risk filing a lawsuit yesterday to prohibit the Controller from deciding if legislators should get paid when an unbalanced budget is passed. If they lose they will have helped establish the California State Controller as a new superpower in the political firmament. If they win, legislators are on the wrong side of the perception issue.

A court validation of the controller’s power to determine if the legislature passed a balance budget swings influence and power to the controller’s office. Who knows how detailed a controller will be in dealing with future budgets?

Perez and Steinberg don’t think they will lose the court fight.

The legislative leaders claim they are pressing the suit on constitutional grounds. According to the Bee, Perez said, “Let me be clear from the outset, both the pro tem and I have waived our claims for remuneration should this lawsuit succeed. This is fundamentally an issue of separation of powers.”

But remuneration is not the only perception problem. If they win, it would appear that the legislators and their pals pulled a fast one on the public.

Here is how Evan Halper and Patrick McGreevy of the Los Angeles Times described the core issue last May: “Fine print in the initiative, drafted by a labor coalition whose main interest was that it also gave Sacramento’s Democratic majority more control over state spending, may have contained an escape hatch. The law stipulates that merely passing a budget bill — it says nothing about whether the budget is balanced, as California’s Constitution also requires — is enough to keep state pay rolling into lawmakers’ bank accounts.”

Yet, the campaign supporting Proposition 25 made it clear that if a budget did not pass legislators would not be paid. Voters did not think that meant that it was okay to pass any piece of paper and call it a budget. Voters were promised a budget would be passed that carried the actual spending plan for the state over the next fiscal year.

The Pro-25 argument in the ballot booklet declared: “Holds legislators accountable when they don’t do their jobs. For every day the budget is late, legislators are docked a day’s pay plus expenses. Importantly, they can’t pay themselves back when the budget is finally passed.”

Holds the legislators accountable … How accountable are they if they can pass a phony budget just to get paid?

So, even if the lawsuit is affirmed on constitutional grounds it will appear that the legislators and their allies set the public up with their ballot initiative. It was all a trick at the voters expense.

Not good when the legislators’ approval rating is only at 17% of likely voters according to yesterday’s PPIC poll. How low can they fall in the public view?

Importantly, for this coming set of ballot measures, the next time legislators say trust us, the voters will not.