SACRAMENTO (CN) – After colorful oral arguments Wednesday afternoon, Judge David Brown affirmed his tentative ruling that State Controller John Chiang does not have the authority to block lawmakers’ pay or decide whether the state budget is balanced.
“The court has spent an extraordinary amount of time on this matter. I feel that the tentative ruling has the right of it,” Brown said after an hour of oral argument where Deputy Attorney General Ross Moody, representing the controller, exchanged barbed rhetoric with Fredric Woocher and Arthur Scotland, representing Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Assembly Speaker John Perez.
“Is this about budgets, or is this about pay? The only thing that happened in June 2011 was the Legislature didn’t get paid for a few days,” Moody said.
The Legislative leaders sued Chiang in Sacramento Superior Court in January, accusing him of violating the separation of powers doctine when he blocked their pay for 12 days. Chiang claimed voter-passed Proposition 25 gave him the power to take action if legislators did not pass a balanced budget by June 15, 2011.
“The controller’s action was unauthorized and unlawful. To allow this to continue in the future would disrupt the legislative process by holding it hostage to the whims of the controller,” said retired Justice Arthur Scotland, attorney for the lawmakers.
Until fairly recently, Scotland was heading a committee looking at ways to reform the Administrative Office of the Courts, a central and often maligned bureaucracy that parceled out money to the trial courts and pushed grandiose projects such as the Court Case Management System, a half-billion-dollar fiasco that was recently halted without seeing a final version of the software adopted in a single court in California.
When he quit the committee, Scotland said he took the job representing the senators and assembly members because the constitutional battle involved the separation of powers, a question of enduring interest to him, and was too good to pass up.
The issue of Chiang’s authority to enforce a balanced budget is very timely because a California budget is expected to be submitted by Governor Jerry Brown Jr. next month, which will begin the process of carving and larding the numbers in the Legislature.
“The notion that some process is being held hostage — let’s call this what it is, it’s a dispute over pay, over whether paychecks were issued,” Moody said, arguing that Chiang did what Prop. 25 gave him the authority to do. The Legislature’s 2011-12 budget included what Chiang considered to be incomplete numbers, with revenue estimates based on trailer bills that had not yet been enacted.
Moody contended that lawmakers would have no incentive to pass budgets on time if they weren’t spurred by the threat of no pay.
“The people demand a balanced budget and a budget on time,” he said. “Why should they be paid as if they passed a comprehensive spending plan when they didn’t? Maybe if they don’t get their pay, they’ll write the bill.”
Controller as King
Answering for the legislators, Woocher said the controller had assumed too much power by withholding the legislators’ pay. “The estimates are always changing. I don’t know how else the Legislature could operate,” he said, adding, “Since when did the controller get to appoint himself king?”
The judge seemed to agree with that point when he turned to Moody and said, “If your position is correct, nobody’s going to want to run for Governor anymore. The big race is going to be for controller.”
Moody answered, “It’s not a question of right or wrong. If you turn in a term paper with three chapters finished and outlines for the next four, are you going to get credit for it?”
The judge interjected, “I think you’re mixing apples and oranges, Mr. Moody. They didn’t fail to submit a budget at all. There’s no question that a budget was submitted.”
Moody replied that the Legislature had “turned in incomplete work.” He said, “You can wrap it around a ham sandwich and send it to the Governor. But it is still a ham sandwich.”
That analogy prompted levity in the courtroom as Woocher replied, “The 500 some-odd-page bill they passed was not a ham sandwich. But there was a lot of meat in it.”
To which Judge Brown replied, “Let’s hope there wasn’t too much pork.”
At that comment, even attorneys dozing in the back rows stirred awake and guffawed.