Prop Zero
The Starting Point for Commentary and Coverage of California Politics

Excuse Me. Is That Budget Constitutional?



    In this file photo taken Oct. 26, 2010, from left, Matt Lauer, California gubernatorial candidate Republican Meg Whitman, Calif. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and California gubernatorial candidate Democrat Jerry Brown are seen on stage at the annual Women's Conference in Long Beach, Calif. California's gubernatorial candidates, who will face a $12 billion budget deficit when they take office, and candidates in other states faced with enormous deficits are playing tricky political games. They promise to erase the paralyzing deficits but generally avoid the painful details of what it will take to accomplish that.

    Over-the-top declarations can provoke, but they are not the most provocative rhetoric in politics.

     A good question is.

    Assembly Republicans, in a letter to Attorney General Kamala Harris, have asked a very good question: is the California state budget passed at the end of June constitutional?

    The question stems from a deal on education funding and policy that was at the heart of the larger budget deal.

    Gov. Brown and the Democrats undertook a manuever that attempted to lower the constitutional education funding guarantee, first approved by voters as Prop 98 in 1988.

    In return for not challenging this legally questionable act, teachers' unions won a variety of new concessions on education policy, including legislation that prevents teacher layoffs -- legislation so inflexible that local school boards are howling.

    Assembly Republicans are interested in this question because of the leverage Prop 98 provides them.

    Prop 98 requires a two-thirds vote to suspend the education funding guarantee.

    But the manuever that was part of the budget passed with a majority vote. Republicans want to know if the manuever was effectively a suspension of Prop 98 -- and thus should have required a two-thirds vote.

    Who is right?

    Anything involving the famously complicated Prop 98 is difficult to answer, but Republicans have a pretty decent case that the two-thirds vote in Prop 98 was violated.

    That said, since that two-thirds vote is bad policy because it makes budgets so difficult to do, here's hoping that this manuever is upheld -- and creates a precedent for future attempts to get around Prop 98's provisions.

    The legislature is so hemmed in by the constitution and a budget system full of difficult provisions that almost any hole it can punch in the system, and any method it can use to get a bit more discretion, is healthy.