The California Legislature will be playing charades this week, passing a budget bill to meet the June 15 constitutional deadline even though it’s not the real budget. It will, however, protect lawmakers’ paychecks.
Let’s say you want a promotion to a higher-ranking position that will also mean a hefty increase in pay, but to be considered you need a master’s degree in your field, and you only have a bachelor’s degree.
You have three choices: Be satisfied with the job you have, go back to school to get that advanced degree, or lie about having it already. You might get away with the latter, but if you get caught, you probably will be fired.
Something like that is occurring this week when the Legislature pretends to have a state budget, but it’s really a sham to protect lawmakers’ paychecks.
The stage was set for this political charade 13 years ago when voters passed Proposition 25, which lowered the legislative vote requirement for budgets from two-thirds to a simple majority.
Democrats and their political allies placed the measure on the ballot to block Republicans from having any say over the budget, thus ending decades of often convoluted dealmaking that sometimes delayed budget enactment for weeks or even months.
Proposition 25 not only lowered the vote requirement but decreed that “in any year in which the budget bill is not passed by the Legislature by midnight on June 15, there shall be no appropriation from the current budget or future budget to pay any salary or reimbursement for travel or living expenses for members of the Legislature during any regular or special session for the period from midnight on June 15 until the day that the budget bill is presented to the governor. No salary or reimbursement for travel or living expenses forfeited pursuant to this subdivision shall be paid retroactively.”
The legislative pay language was included to persuade voters that lowering the vote requirement was a good thing because it would prevent long stalemates by punishing lawmakers for failure to meet the June 15 deadline.
The language was tested a year later when the Legislature passed a budget, but newly inaugurated Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed it as being unbalanced and state Controller John Chiang suspended legislators’ paychecks, declaring that parts of the budget were “miscalculated, miscounted or unfinished.”
Chiang’s actions incensed lawmakers, and they later obtained a judicial ruling that the Legislature itself is the only authority on whether its budget satisfies the June 15 deadline. Thus, the Legislature can merely pass a bill it labels as a budget by that date, regardless of its content, and continue to be paid.
That is what is happening this week.
On Sunday, two measures, Assembly Bill 101 and Senate Bill 101, were amended to become identical budget bills and legislative leaders declared their intent to pass one or the other and send it to Gov. Gavin Newsom by midnight Thursday, the June 15 deadline.
The timing is dictated by another constitutional requirement that a bill be “in print” at least 72 hours before passage.
Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon and Senate President Pro Tem Tony Atkins described it in a joint statement Monday morning as “a two-party agreement on a balanced and responsible budget,” adding, “we are continuing to negotiate and make progress on three-party final budget.”
There were significant differences between the two houses earlier in the budget cycle that apparently have been reconciled. The legislative leaders didn’t offer any details, but they really don’t matter because passing a bill, any bill, is just a drill to meet the June 15 deadline.
“As in years past,” the two leaders said, “once an agreement is reached between the Legislature and governor, amendments to this budget bill will be introduced to reflect such an agreement.”
That will be the real budget, whenever it occurs.