It wasn't any legislator's favorite question Monday, but it was the one reporters kept asking: Should you continue receiving pay?
After emphasizing he was more concerned about potential deep cuts in the wake of Gov. Jerry Brown's veto, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, a lawyer, offered arguments for why Controller John Chiang should pay lawmakers.
Chiang, a Democrat in charge of issuing paychecks, is weighing whether to issue salary and living expenses under a new voter-approved law that docks legislative pay for each day the budget is late. Democratic lawmakers passed a majority-vote budget on Wednesday, the constitutional deadline, but Brown vetoed it immediately while questioning its legal viability and balance.
The law itself, Proposition 25, is silent as to whether the budget must be "balanced," but Chiang said earlier this month that it should be read in conjunction with another law requiring a balanced budget. The controller is reviewing the budget bills and is expected to decide this week on whether to issue pay.
Steinberg's first argument had to do with separation of powers. He said that it would be bad precedent to allow a controller - or anyone else from the executive branch - to decide on whether lawmakers should get paid.
"Forget any of us as individuals, it is a bad precedent for anyone in the executive branch to question the quality of a budget passed by the legislators," Steinberg said after a brief Monday floor session. "Because to do so shifts the balance of powers in what is supposed to be coequal branches of government in a way I think is dangerous."
"Think about if there was a governor or treasurer or controller from the other party, think about that," he added. "And they were unhappy with the quality of a budget the Legislature passed. They would then have the ability, if Proposition 25 were to be interpreted in a way some suggest, to say not good enough. We withhold your pay until you make all of the decisions and all of the cuts that we believe are appropriate."
A separate issue, Steinberg said, is whether the controller's interpretation undermines the spirit of the state's conflict of interest law.
The Senate leader noted that lawmakers have a duty to abstain from voting on matters in which they have a personal financial interest. He suggested that if the controller withholds pay, then lawmakers may decide to slash programs just to benefit their own pocketbooks.
"Think about how all that could be turned on its head here if, in fact, we have to make a decision, choices, that have real impact when it comes to cuts on the people of California and our own well being," Steinberg said. "I don't think that even the authors of Prop 25 ... would see that as any kind of healthy development for California. We ought to make the decisions that we make on the level of cuts on the merits."
Torey Van Oot contributed to this report.