Capitol Alert
The latest on California politics and government
April 24, 2012

Post has been updated throughout the afternoon with responses and additional reporting.

A Sacramento Superior Court judge has tentatively ruled that the state controller has no authority to judge whether the state budget is balanced or block lawmakers’ pay as he did last June.

In a bitter feud during last year’s budget battle, Controller John Chiang determined that the budget passed by legislative Democrats was not balanced. Using new powers he believed he had under voter-approved Proposition 25, Chiang then blocked lawmakers’ pay and expense money for 12 days until they cut a budget deal with Gov. Jerry Brown.

In a tentative ruling today, Judge David I. Brown said that the controller does not have discretion to determine whether the Legislature’s budget is balanced. Proposition 25 said that lawmakers must approve a balanced budget by June 15 or else lose their pay.

Brown’s ruling essentially says that the Legislature can determine for itself whether a budget is balanced.

“A contrary result could threaten to undermine the Legislature’s essential function,” Brown wrote today.

Chiang’s office did not indicate today how it would proceed beyond making the scheduled oral arguments Wednesday in Sacramento Superior Court. Brown could issue a final decision at any time after tomorrow’s arguments.

In a statement, Chiang said, “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. Adopting an unbalanced and unfinanceable budget may ensure they are paid, but the people of California will be stuck with delayed payments and IOUs once that ‘budget’ falls apart.”

The court decision confirms one of the chief criticisms of Proposition 25 during the campaign – that lawmakers have wide discretion in determining what a balanced budget is. Opponents in 2010 claimed that lawmakers could pass any budget just to get paid, but Chiang, at least for one year, upended that theory.

Judge Brown wrote that if Chiang believes that the budget is not balanced, he should challenge their plan in court rather than initiate his own review.

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