Advancing a Free Society

Should California's Controller Cut Off the Legislature's Pay?

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Two anticipated things have occurred in Sacramento: the Democratic-controlled Legislature forwarded a, shall we say, “creative” budget to Gov. Jerry Brown.

By doing so, lawmakers won’t lose their paychecks. Under the terms of last year’s Proposition 25, lawmakers automatically forfeit their pay if a budget isn’t passed by the June 15th constitutional deadline.

The other shoe that dropped: Brown vetoed said flawed budget earlier today – with little fanfare . . . or hesitation.

The gist of his logic (per his veto message):

[The budget] continues big deficits for years to come and adds billions of dollars in new debt. It also contains legally questionable maneuvers, costly borrowing and unrealistic savings. Finally, it is not financeable and therefore will not allow us to meet our obligations as they occur.

So here’s the question: what’s stopping California State Controller John Chiang, whose signature you’ll find on the bottom right-hand corner of the State of California’s checks, from punishing the Legislature by denying their pay?

It seems to me the governor’s veto message offers the rationale: a budget that’s legally dubious and isn’t “financeable” doesn’t honor the spirit of Prop 25.

Would Chiang take such action?

Don’t bet on it.

First, there’s his track record. Given the choice of siding with then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and paying state workers minimum wage to get California through a temporary budget crisis, Chiang sided instead with the workers. Translation: as a California Democrat, it’s in his long-term interest not to upset the state’s public employees unions.

Second, Chiang is but one of several statewide officeholders currently playing the game of musical chairs that is angling for another office (one of the more unpleasant aspects of California’s term-limit restrictions). He may want to run for governor in 2014, if Brown steps aside. Or he could make a lateral move – say, Secretary of State.

If so, that all but guarantees the State Controller will stop payment on lawmakers’ salaries, thus becoming the most unpopular man in Sacramento – even if it might make him popular beyond in the real world beyond the State Capitol.