The Jesters Sue King John

Can the state legislature take away King John's crown?

When voters approved Prop 25 in 2010, they thought they were making it easier to pass budgets. But the measure also gave the state controller -- the fellow who signs the checks -- the power to withhold the pay of legislators if they don't pass a budget the controller judges to be balanced.

That effectively gave huge, new, unchecked power over budget-making to Controller John Chiang. And last year, King John used it, blocking pay after the legislature passed a budget that was unbalanced in the billions. Of course, Chiang later approved lawmakers' pay after the legislature passed a revised budget that was also unbalanced. Latest estimates of that budget, which covers the current fiscal year expiring at the end of June, show it to be more than $5 billion out of balance.

State legislators were furious about the pay -- and about the shift in court of budget power. And now they -- reduced to the role of court jestors -- are suing to reverse it, arguing that giving a member of the executive branch such power over the budget -- the core function of the legislative branch amounts to a violation of the separation of powers in the California constitution. And they are right. Of course, the Prop 25 provisions that gave the controller this power are also in the constitution. In this, and in so many other matters, the California constitution contradicts itself.

Who should Californians root for in this? The legislature, since its budget power is checked by the governor. (The controller's power to block pay isn't checked). But in a practical sense, the stakes here are low. The current budget system makes a balanced budget virtually impossible. So the dispute here is over which body -- the legislature or the controller's office -- gets to decide which unbalanced budget will be considered balanced. It's an argument over who gets to declare a fiction to be the truth.

Such is the state of California governance in 2012.

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