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Senate leader Darrell Steinberg said today that it would be "a victory for upholding the separation of powers" if a Sacramento judge finalizes his decision favoring lawmakers over Controller John Chiang in their budget-related pay dispute.

Sacramento Superior Court Judge David I. Brown issued a tentative ruling Tuesday siding with legislative leaders who said Chiang cannot block their pay on the basis of how he interprets their budget. The Democratic controller last year withheld 12 days' worth of pay and expense money by relying a new on-time budget requirement in Proposition 25 and a constitutional requirement requiring their budget to be balanced.

Brown will hear oral arguments today at 2 p.m. before issuing a final ruling.

Steinberg said he was "obviously pleased" with Brown's tentative ruling, which attacked several of Chiang's arguments. The Senate leader acknowledged that he and lawmakers would "take a hit" from the public for suing the controller, but he said, "There is a big difference between how people might feel about this in the present, and what this means for upholding the separation of powers in the long run."

Steinberg and Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez filed a lawsuit in January asserting that Chiang had overstepped his bounds. They argued that he had assumed constitutional powers of spending that belong to the Legislature, and they raised the hypothetical of an obstinate controller from another party who could single-handedly block the budget for political gain.

"The bottom line is, you can't empower any official to leverage the pay of elected officials to try to achieve any kind of desired result," Steinberg said. He added that the tentative decision "restores the appropriate balance of powers" after Gov. Jerry Brown gained leverage last year in final budget negotiations last summer.

But Chiang said that without his ability to judge the budget and withhold pay, Proposition 25 lacks any outside authority who can assure lawmakers pass a balanced budget.

"The court's tentative ruling flies in the face of the voters' will by allowing legislators to keep their salaries flowing by simply slapping the title 'budget act' on a sheet of paper by June 15," Chiang said in a statement Tuesday.

Judge Brown dismissed that argument in his tentative ruling, and he suggested that Chiang could sue the Legislature instead if he wanted to challenge its budget.

"A contrary result could threaten to undermine the Legislature's essential function," Brown wrote.


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