SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) - Whether California's 2011 budget was an elaborate shell game or a truly balanced budget wasn't for state Controller John Chiang to decide, California's two most powerful legislators say.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Assembly Speaker John Perez sued Chiang this week for withholding legislators' pay in June 2011, after Chiang determined that the state budget was not balanced, as voters required through constitutional amendments in 2004 and 2010.
In their Superior Court complaint, the lawmakers say Chiang "went beyond the limited terms and restrictions imposed by the constitution by adding into his budget calculation" hundreds of millions of dollars in appropriations that had not yet been passed, and so were not included in the budget bill.
Steinberg and Perez claim that Chiang violated the separation of powers doctrine by inserting himself into the budget process.
California's controller is an executive office, and budget deliberations belong to the legislative branch.
The Legislature passed a budget by the June 15 deadline in 2011. But Gov. Jerry Brown returned it to the Legislature without his signature on June 16.
Brown said that the budget "continues big deficits for years to come and adds billions of dollars of new debt. ... We can - and must - do better."
Chiang weighed in on the budget five days later, on June 21.
Chang said that he had "found components that were miscalculated, miscounted or unfinished. The numbers simply did not add up, and the Legislature will forfeit their pay until a balanced budget is sent to the governor."
Lawmakers passed another budget on June 28, and Brown signed the bill on June 30, the last day of California's fiscal year.
Under 2010's Proposition 25, California's Legislature is required to pass a budget on or before June 15 - with a simple majority rather than the supermajority previously required - or forfeit their salaries and per diem pay for every day the budget is late.
Who polices the Legislature on budgetary matters, and docks their pay when they fail to produce a balanced, on-time budget, is unclear. But Steinberg and Perez say it's not Chiang's responsibility.
"The courts have repeatedly held that the controller's duties are generally ministerial, and that his responsibility to draw warrants for the expenditure of state funds does not include the authority to ascertain the validity of the payment," according to the complaint.
"The constitution assigns the responsibility for adopting a budget in compliance with its provisions to the Legislature and the governor, and neither the constitution nor any statute grants the controller's office any role in that process, much less the power to declare the Legislature's pay to be forfeited based on the controller's unilateral determination that requirements allegedly were not satisfied."
Steinberg and Perez do not seek back pay for the Legislature - only a declaration that Chiang overstepped his constitutional boundaries, in reviewing the budget at all, and by suspending lawmakers' pay.
Perez's press secretary John Vigna to Courthouse News the lawsuit is about the principle of the thing, not the money.
"It's about separation of powers," Vigna said. "Given the theatrics of last year, they [Steinberg and Perez] decided to waive their claim for back pay."
So why not sue for declaratory relief while the controversy is taking place, rather than 7 months later?
"They wanted to take their time and be on solid legal footing before filing the lawsuit," Vigna said. "There's never a great time to file a lawsuit like this, but we felt once we were confident in our case, and we are confident, that was the time to go."
Steinberg's press secretary Mark Hedlund agreed.
"Our goal was to have this filed in a manner timely enough that the court could resolve the issue before such conflict disrupted the upcoming work on the 2012-13 state budget," Hedlund said. "This is not an action that will require witness testimony or a long series of evidentiary hearings. We believe the litigation can proceed post haste."
Chiang said in a statement that he welcomes the judicial review of his authority, which he says includes the obligation to follow voter mandates.
"While nothing in the Constitution gives me the authority to judge the honesty, legitimacy or viability of a budget, it does clearly restrict my authority to issue pay to legislators when they fail to enact a balanced budget by the constitutional deadline of June 15,'' Chiang said in his statement.
And who's paying for this political equivalent of an inter-office squabble? The taxpayers of California.
"The litigation is being funded by the Legislature's budget allocation, which is appropriate, in that the action concerns the Legislature's constitutional duties and responsibilities," Hedlund said.
"As Senator Steinberg said, 'The speaker and I are temporary stewards of these leadership positions. We have an obligation to govern now and we have an obligation to stand and defend the legislative branch of government and its authority for the years and decades ahead, when others occupy these positions. Imagine the mischief five years from now, or 10 years from now, if a controller is from a different political party than the majority party and wants to leverage the budget for his or her own partisan or political purposes.'"
Hedlund and Vigna pointed out that the Legislature has cut its own operating budget in the past several years, and is having to do more with less.
Hedlund said the cuts have generally ranged "around 10 percent annually over the past several years."
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