Prop. 25 would have pay forfeited for good

Sunday, August 1, 2010 at 8:01 p.m.

SACRAMENTO — Despite their chronic failure to do the job, California lawmakers continue to earn about $400 a day in pay and expense money when budget talks drag into overtime.

That may end soon — with a caveat.

Proposition 25 on the November ballot requires members of the Legislature to permanently forfeit salary and $142 per diem for each day the state budget is not passed beyond the constitutional deadline of June 15.

That certainly could entice voters eager to lash out at lawmakers for persistent budget deadlocks that result in Friday furloughs closing DMV offices, IOUs to vendors, junk bond ratings and schools in dire straits.

There is more to it, though. The main thrust of Proposition 25 would make it easier to pass budgets by a simple-majority vote, rather than the two-thirds requirement now in place.

Meeting the June 15 deadline is a rare feat, accomplished only once in the past 20 years. The idea is that the date gives the governor about two weeks to methodically go through the budget to make vetoes before the fiscal year begins July 1. But it is common for the Legislature to blow the July 1 deadline as well.

If Proposition 25 is adopted, California would become the first state in the nation to dock legislative pay for not making the deadline. Like current California policy, many states withhold pay until the budget is wrapped up, but then they send out reimbursement checks.

More than paychecks are at stake for Republicans.

Passing a budget with a simple majority would significantly dilute the power of minority Republicans, who have used the supermajority rule to wring concessions from Democrats.

“It vastly reduces their already meager leverage,” said Jack Pitney, a professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College. “This is really the only point where the minority party counts.”

If the law were in place today, lawmakers would have been docked $6,400 each. That includes 16 days worth of per diem and salary accumulated before the summer break, which ends today. When they are not in session, such as these past few weeks of summer recess, they do not collect per diem. Rank-and-file lawmakers earn $95,291 per year.

But simply passing a budget, much less getting it to the governor on time, seems a herculean task for lawmakers with clashing political and philosophical approaches to government spending.

This year, with the budget shortfall at $19 billion, lawmakers are not even close to a resolution. But most agree that a budget would pass if they needed only a simple majority.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has said he prefers the two-thirds vote requirement, suggesting he will oppose Proposition 25. However, in the past, he has promoted financial penalties when the budget deadline is missed.

Assemblyman Marty Block, D-San Diego, said that at times “no budget is better than a bad budget,” but added that the current practice allows lawmakers to cast blame elsewhere.

“Right now, neither party has the authority and neither party wants the responsibility,” Block said. Block said he is leaning in support of the initiative, as long as he is assured the two-thirds vote for tax increases remains intact.

Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, R-San Diego, said he is inclined to oppose Proposition 25 because a supermajority “forces both parties to work together.”

He does favor forfeiting pay, however. “If you’re not doing your job, you shouldn’t be paid,” Fletcher said.

Docking pay was tried before in legislation that stalled. During the process, a committee analysis raised some questions:

“Should not budgetary decisions be made solely on their merits and not be shaded by the possibility of self interest? Does it work to the benefit of the independently wealthy member to protract negotiations at the expense of the member whose family relies on his or her paycheck?”

Senate Republican Leader Dennis Hollingsworth of Temecula said he has no problems with forfeiting pay, but doubts it would lead to lawmakers abandoning deep-seated convictions that are at the heart of the stalemates.

“The people are always going to support (withholding pay),” said Hollingsworth, who represents a swath of San Diego County. “In the end, it’s not going to change anything.”

Supporters insist the process must change. For example, a simple-majority requirement would weaken the hand of individual lawmakers who tend to hold out for special favors as leaders desperately scramble for every last vote.

“Those backroom deals made when the budget is late is bad public policy,” said David Low, government affairs director for the California School Employees Association, one of the sponsors of Proposition 25.

Others say horse trading will always be part of the budget process, supermajority requirement or not.

Republicans and the California Chamber of Commerce are hoping to sway voters against Proposition 25 by raising the notion that it would make it easier for Democrats to raise taxes. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst, however, says the two-thirds majority for taxes will remain in effect.

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