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California's Controller fights the machine

Updated on July 2, 2012

We gave 'em an unlimited budget and they exceeded it

April 25, 2012 was a dark day for all people who believe in fairness and good government. On that day a Sacramento Superior Court Judge ruled that California’s Controller does not have the authority to enforce balanced budget provisions of the state Constitution. Controller John Chiang indignantly replied that the ruling “guts the no-budget no pay provisions that Californians placed into the Constitution. It gives lawmakers the sole authority to determine if they’ve done their job and deserve their pay. It is an affront to our basic governing principle of checks and balances.”

I had been waiting to see if the Controller would appeal the decision which came about as a result of the two most powerful leaders of the legislature, Senate President pro tempore Darrell Steinberg and Assembly Speaker John Perez, filing a complaint to stop any Controller from withholding pay of Legislators just because the Controller finds the budget is not balanced on time. The Superior Court sided with the legislature, essentially finding that if the legislature says the budget is balanced, it is so. The Controller does not have the power to withhold legislators’ pay based upon the Controller’s own analysis of the budget. Wait a minute; most of us thought this is what checks and balances is all about.

Days after the ruling I wondered whether the Controller would appeal the ruling which read like something out of Alice in Wonderland. In the weeks that followed the court’s ruling, we contacted the controller’s office to find out whether he planned to appeal. As the weeks crawled along without any decision, we wrote letters to various groups urging them to encourage the Controller to file an appeal, we wrote editorials and we talked about it on our internet radio program – and we thought we were just yelling into a canyon, hearing the echo of our own voices and weeks of indecision. Things started to happen. The OC Register editorialized that the Controller ought to file an appeal. Last week, I called the Controller’s office and they still had not decided, according to a spokesman. Then tonight, as I was reading my e-mail, I saw the news headline, “John Chiang appeals to regain authority over legislative pay” (Sacramento Bee, July 2, 2012, http://bit.ly/MRuuNH).

Just a few words on why I think the Controller’s appeal is so important. The people of California have established a good framework for governing the state over the last 100 years, despite what many critics might say. Any system can be twisted to the advantage of a powerful majority, and that is what has happened in California. Neither the courts, nor ballot measures can put things in order. For a balanced approach to the budget, we need people who understand the need for a balanced budget and how to get it while living within the revenue that is available. Tax increases are counterproductive, but some tax and regulatory reform is in order. Net effect should be no need for additional revenue and a better run government. If the Controller is successful in winning his appeal(s), the people will have gained much through a balance of power. If he loses, we all lose. Every candidate for office should be asked for their view on the case and what they plan to do to balance the budget at a level no higher than this year’s budget adjusted for inflation.

The current situation in Sacramento reminds me of the battle cry in support of Proposition 13, the 1973 People’s Initiative to Limit Property Taxation: “We gave ‘em an unlimited budget and they exceeded it.”


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