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Thursday, May 23, 2024 | Back issues
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Judge Reins In CA Controller Who Fined Legislators

SACRAMENTO (CN) - State Controller John Chiang does not have the authority to block lawmakers' pay or decide whether the state budget is balanced, a Superior Court judge said in a tentative ruling Tuesday.

Oral arguments are scheduled for today before Superior Court Judge David I. Brown.

Brown said that even though Proposition 25, passed by voters in 2010, dictates that lawmakers must approve a balanced budget by June 15 or lose their pay, Chiang does not have the power to make a determination on budgets or take any consequential action.

Chiang was not immediately available for comment, but issued a statement Tuesday.

"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," he said.

Chiang took action last year in what the Sacramento Bee called a "bitter feud" over the budget between legislative Democrats and Gov. Jerry Brown. It ended with Chiang blocking lawmakers' pay and expense money for 12 days.

Legislative leaders sued Chiang in January, accusing him of violating the separation of powers.

"They argued that allowing a state controller to judge their budgets for balance would give the controller authority that he does not have," according to Sacramento Bee reporter Kevin Yamamura.

Judge Brown rejected Chiang's claim that he had new powers under Prop. 25, writing that if "Chiang believes that the budget is not balanced, he should challenge their plan in court rather than initiate his own review."

But Chiang said Prop. 25 was straightforward in its meaning.

"Voters passed Proposition 25 because they're tired of the Legislature's chronic inability to pass a balanced budget by the June 15 constitutional deadline," Chiang wrote in the statement. "The initiative was clear - no balanced, on-time budget, no pay for lawmakers."

One of the major criticisms of Prop. 25 main during the 2010 campaign was that lawmakers have too much latitude in determining what constitutes a balanced budget.

"Adopting an unbalanced and unfinanceable budget may ensure they (lawmakers) are paid," Chiang wrote. "But the people of California will be stuck with delayed payments and IOUs once that 'budget' falls apart."

Judge Brown noted Chiang's criticism that lawmakers did not spend money Chiang thought was required for schools and failed to approve laws needed to raise money. The judge cited court ruling and constitutional provisions that call the budget bill a "legislative function."

Judge Brown said even a governor cannot alter the Legislature's revenue estimates. "Yet, under defendant's interpretation, he has the power to do what the Governor cannot."

Chiang said he needs time to decide what actions to take in light of the ruling.

"I will review options with the Attorney General to determine the next steps," he said.

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