The Budget That Wasn't Phony Enough

Some readers seem to have concluded that my critique of Controller John Chiang’s power grab means I favor a gimmicky budget. Those readers haven’t been reading very closely. So let me spell it out again.

Yes, as I’ve written, the budget passed June 15 is full of gimmicks. That’s a bad thing. It’s also an inevitable thing, given the constitutional whips and chains that prevent a legislative majority from taking the actions, like raising taxes, suspending the Prop 98 school funding guarantee, and moving spending and revenue from programs imposed by initiatives, needed to balance the budget. In California, what is constitutionally required (that the Legislature pass a balanced budget) is not constitutionally permitted.

But as I’ve also written, there is a constitutionally approved and timed-honored way of bringing a gimmicky legislative budget into balance: The governor uses his line-item veto to reduce the appropriations in the budget to a level that can be funded with anticipated revenues. Jerry Brown, to no one’s surprise, did not have the political courage to do that. Far from favoring a gimmicky budget, I’ve been pretty much alone in arguing that Brown failed to do what is necessary to have a balanced one.

Those readers seem also to believe that Chiang is standing against budget gimmicks. Again, they have failed to read very closely.

In moving illegally to withhold legislators’ pay, Chiang explicitly denied he was acting against the gimmicks in the budget. “While the vetoed budget contains solutions of questionable achievability and some to which I am personally opposed, current law provides no authority for my office to second-guess them,” he said. He instead relied on an invented authority to check the budget’s internal arithmetic.

Let’s be clear what that means: Chiang would not have taken away lawmakers' pay had they set the revenue estimate high enough to cover his re-estimate of the budget’s spending. In other words, Chiang has punished the Legislature because the budget wasn’t phony enough.

Thanks to Chiang, you can be sure lawmakers will never make that mistake again.