State Controller John Chiang lacks the authority to determine whether a budget approved by the California Legislature is balanced, a court ruled, handing another legal victory to lawmakers whose pay he docked amid a standoff in 2011.
Chiang based his denial of legislative pay on a finding that lawmakers failed to pass a balanced state budget in an attempt to get in under a voter-approved pay deadline. The 3rd District Court of Appeal in Sacramento unanimously upheld a 2012 lower court decision, concluding that lawmakers must merely enact a budget bill in which revenue estimates for the coming year exceed the total of existing appropriations.
"At that point, the Controller does not have the authority to make an independent assessment that the budget bill is not in fact balanced because it relies on revenues not yet authorized in existing law (or in enrolled legislation) and on that basis withhold the salaries of legislators as a penalty for failing to enact a timely budget," the court said in its decision published Friday.
Chiang called the ruling a setback for important reforms voters made to the budget process three years ago.
"The ruling adopts the Legislature's argument that a budget is balanced if it -- without any independent verification -- says it is so," he said in a prepared statement. "This is a loophole that undermines the voters' desire to only pay lawmakers when they discharge their most important and fundamental duty -- to pass a budget that is both timely and truly balanced."
In 2010, California voters passed Democratic-backed Proposition 25 requiring lawmakers to surrender their pay and daily per diem checks for every day they exceed the June 15 deadline. The same law permitted them to pass budgets on a majority vote rather than two-thirds, a considerably higher feat requiring bipartisan action.
Following Chiang's action, the legal challenge was launched by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, and Assembly Speaker John A. Perez, D-Los Angeles. The filing specifically stated the Legislature was not seeking back pay.
Sacramento Superior Court Judge David I. Brown in 2012 ruled Chiang assumed budget duties reserved for lawmakers. The ruling essentially said the Legislature was free to determine whether a budget was balanced under the state constitution.
"The Legislature consistently made the necessary tough budget decisions over the last five years," Steinberg said Friday. "California is in much better shape as a result. Today's unanimous court decision is further affirmation of our difficult and responsible decisions."
PHOTO: California Controller John Chiang speaks at the Bee Capitol Bureau in 2011. The Sacramento Bee/Hector Amezcua