California, State of the Absurd

Just when you think California governance can’t get more bizarre, Controller John Chiang, using constitutional authority he admits he doesn’t have, has decided to withhold pay from legislators for having passed a gimmicky budget, which is the only kind of budget that California’s current constitutional and political balance permits them to pass.

I won’t belabor the legal and constitutional issue, which I analyzed previously, except to note that Chiang himself, in his internally self-contradictory statement, provides no evidence to justify what is, on its face, an abuse of his office and violation of the constitution.

Instead, in the interest of appreciating the utter absurdity of the moment, let’s step back and look at the larger picture.

Let’s assume for a moment that Chiang has the power he has asserted. Let’s also assume, which almost no one disputes, that the budget passed June 15 by the Legislature contained gimmicks to paper over deficits, just as most budgets have for the last decade.

And then let’s ask a question: How could have the majority party in the Legislature passed a budget that would have spared legislators from Chiang’s wrath?

As a matter of normal arithmetic, the easy answer is that the Democrats could have raised taxes to make the budget balance. As a matter of constitutional and political arithmetic, that answer wasn’t available to the legislative majority.

Under California’s system of minority rule on most matters fiscal, it takes a two-thirds vote to raise any tax or fee. And the minority Republicans have been adamant in refusing to do that. You can say that they should compromise (Republicans would say surrender) on taxes in the interests of the greater good. However, that would require those Republicans to do precisely what their own voters sent them to Sacramento not to do. (And what a majority of voters statewide seem to oppose, according to the most recent PPIC poll.)

With taxes constitutionally taken off the table, the normal arithmetic dictates spending cuts. And since the largest share of the state budget goes to schools, that means cuts in school spending.

But again, as a matter of constitutional and political arithmetic, that answer wasn’t available to the legislative majority either. The constitution dictates a minimum level of school funding, which can be reduced only by suspending Prop 98. That also requires a two-thirds supermajority, which is nowhere in sight, in large part because polling shows that Californians overwhelmingly oppose cuts to school funding.

So how could the majority party in the Legislature have passed a budget that would have met Chiang’s approval? They couldn’t have. Under our current constitution and current politics, passing an honest budget is not something within the power of the legislative majority.

And yet John Chiang presumes to punish lawmakers for not doing what we, the voters, have prevented them from doing. With apologies to Gary Shteyngart, welcome to the new Absurdistan.