Thursday, June 16, 2011

Legislature Sends On-Time Budget to Governor - Courts Take $150 million Added Hit

The Legislature achieved its objective of sending Governor Jerry Brown a theoretically balanced state budget by the Constitutional deadline yesterday (Wednesday, June 15), though the product is not one anyone appeared particularly pleased with - least of all the state's courts, which saw their budget slashed by an additional $150 million over the $200 cut already made in March.

Operating with the resolve and efficiency of one who has a distasteful but necessary job to do, the Democratic majorities in both legislative houses rolled through the proposed budget bill (AB 98) that had just been created via amendment the day before, along with several "trailer" bills needed to make the statutory changes necessary for the changes reflected in the Budget bill to take effect. Many of the changes involved creative mechanisms for increasing revenues via majority vote, rather than the 2/3 vote required by the state Constitution to increase taxes or fees, which required Republican support to achieve. Needless to say, several of the changes - in particular Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg's SBX1 23 (i.e., SB 23 in the first Special Session), which would allow counties, school districts, community college districts and county boards of education to raise a variety of local taxes with voter approval - likely will be challenged in court.

The majority vote budget was the first since 1933, and came as the result of Proposition 25 on last November's ballot, which reduced the margin required to pass a budget from 2/3. The oft-referenced provision of that proposition that would permanently forfeit lawmaker salaries and expenses every day the budget was late may or may not have played a role in the Legislature's haste to approve; it's quite likely that the lawmakers who had long championed the majority-vote budget felt compelled to make it work on its maiden voyage. Capitol historians note that this was only the second time in the past 25 years that the Legislature has met the June 15 constitutional deadline to send a budget bill to the governor.

The day before the vote, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye issued a statement decrying the proposed action, calling the budget proposal "devastating and crippling to the judicial branch and to the public it serves. . . With these cuts courts cannot provide these fundamental services or protect the rights of Californians. . . By marginalizing the courts, California strikes a blow against justice." In May, Gov. Jerry Brown's finance department said this second round of cuts likely would lead to court closures statewide twice a month.

It's not yet known if state Controller John Chiang, who has the final word on such matters, will certify that the budget approved by the Legislature is indeed balanced.  Nor is it absolutely certain that Governor Jerry Brown will sign the package (he has 12 days to do so, otherwise it becomes law without his signature).  Brown has been trying to work out a compromise with legislative Republicans to provide the votes needed to place a series of tax increases - or, more properly, an extension of recently-expired tax increases - before the voters at a special election, possibly in combination with Republican-sought proposals relating to such things as pension reform. Those efforts have been unsuccessful to date, however, and the passage of the majority-vote budget may remove the pressure to hold further negotiations - though there is nothing preventing a tax/fee-related backfill solution at any time if the votes can be found.

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