Democrats sue controller for halting lawmaker pay

The Legislature's Democratic leaders filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the state controller for blocking lawmakers' pay last year after deciding they had failed to meet their constitutional deadline for passing a balanced budget.

Assembly Speaker John Perez and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said they are not seeking back pay, but rather want the courts to clarify whether Controller John Chiang overstepped his constitutional authority when he withheld lawmakers' pay.

“This is fundamentally an issue of separation of powers,” Perez, D-Los Angeles, said at a Capitol news conference.

Chiang, also a Democrat, acted under Proposition 25, an initiative approved by voters in 2010. He said he reviewed the budget passed by the Democratic majority and determined it was not balanced. The lawsuit filed in Sacramento County Superior Court says it was and that Chiang overstepped his authority.

He issued a statement after the Democrats' news conference saying he welcomes the court's review.

“The issue before us is not the role of my office, but how to enact the will of the voters,” Chiang said. “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.”

Rank-and-file lawmakers have a base annual salary of $95,291 but can make about $30,000 more through per diem payments. They lost an average of $4,800 in salary and per diem pay before they passed a budget that Chiang said was balanced.

Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said legislative leaders are not picking a fight with Chiang or with Gov. Jerry Brown, a fellow Democrat who had vetoed the Legislature's budget because it contained billions of dollars in borrowing and questionable budgetary maneuvers. But he said they have a responsibility to defend the Legislature's independence.

“Neither the governor nor any member of the executive branch may brandish the threat of withholding legislative pay because they disagree with the decisions made by the legislative branch,” Steinberg said. “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.”

Perez and Steinberg said they expect the constitutional question to be resolved before the budget debate heats up this spring. Resolving the issue quickly matters this year because Democrats in the Legislature disagree with the health care and social spending cuts that Brown has recommended.

If Democrats are forced to pass a budget by the June 15 deadline, they may have to accept those cuts because they will not have any leverage with the governor's office.

Under Proposition 25, Democrats could pass the budget with their simple majority, but Republicans had balked at providing the two-thirds majority needed to raise taxes.

Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, was not consulted about the lawsuit, said a spokesman, Bill Bird. Perez informed Assembly Minority Leader Connie Conway, R-Tulare, said her spokeswoman, Sabrina Lockhart.

“She hasn't weighed in on it beyond the fact that she's aware of it being filed,” Lockhart said.

Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, criticized the lawsuit.

“This is arrogant and I think it is reflective of a significant disconnect between our elected leadership and ordinary Californians,” he said.

The lawsuit asserts that “the Controller went beyond the limited terms and restrictions imposed by the Constitution” when he essentially did his own math. Chiang said the budget approved by lawmakers wasn't balanced because it relied on taxes, fees and an underfunding of schools that had not been approved by the Legislature.

But it's up to the Legislature and governor to adopt a budget, the lawsuit says, adding that “neither the Constitution nor any statute grants the Controller any role in that process.”

Proposition 25 is silent on who decides whether the budget is balanced. Chiang spokesman Jacob Roper said the controller draws his authority to make that decision from Proposition 58, which amended the state Constitution to define a balanced budget, and from the controller's constitutional obligation to pay only expenses that have been lawfully authorized.

Chiang asserted that he has the obligation to “determine whether the expected revenues will equal or exceed planned expenditures in the budget,” under Article 4 of the state Constitution.

The legislative leaders hired Arthur Scotland, a retired appeals court chief justice, to represent them. He will be paid $435 an hour from the Legislature's operating budget, Perez said.

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