Dethroning King John?

Remember last year's big budget controversy? State Controller John Chiang, seizing an opening in Prop 25's rules requiring a balanced budget if legislators were going to receive pay, blocked legislative salaries after Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the first budget to pass the legislature. He relented after a second budget was passed and approved by Brown -- even though that budget was obviously unbalanced, since it included $4 billion in phony revenue projections.

Still, the goings-on represented a bold seizure of power, and appeared to give a controller a huge, new role to play in the budget process, since he could certify a budget as balanced and decide whether to withhold legislative pay. Here at Prop Zero, we bowed to King John.

Indeed, this near-absolute new power for controllers was dangerous. Budgets are a legislative function, and giving an executive officer power to stop paying the legislature based on his or her judgment of that legislative action created a huge imbalance of power.

And in a new, tentative ruling, a superior court judge in Sacramento agreed. The controller does not have discretion to decide whether the legislature's budget is balanced. The legislature gets to decide that for itself.

You'll likely hear howls from self-styled reformers and media folks that this guts a Prop 25 provision that was meant to hold the legislature to account. In truth, assuming the ruling becomes permanent, it ends a power grab.

So Californians can say today: King John is Dead! Long Live King John!

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Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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