Steinberg raises legal questions over pay issue

Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, made it clear that there are legal implications — lawsuit, anyone? — with the decision on legislative pay that state Controller John Chiang is expected to make Tuesday.

Steinberg suggested that any decision by the Controller would be legally questionable.

The question that got Steinberg reverting back to the lawyer that he is: Will you be able to hold out and negotiate all summer if your members are not being paid.

The unspoken suggestion: that legislators would cave on demands of $2 billion to $6 billion more in cuts to schools, universities and public safety to ensure they get their salary and daily expenses.

“It is a bad precedent for anybody in the executive branch to question the quality of a budget passed by the Legislature,” he told reporters after a quick Senate session Monday. “Because to do so is to shift the balance of power … in a way that is dangerous.

“Think about if there was a governor, a treasurer or controller from the other party and they were unhappy with the quality of the budget the Legislature passed, they would have the ability — if Proposition 25 is interpreted in a way some suggest — to say it’s not good enough, we withhold your pay until you make all of the decisions and and all of the cuts that we believe are appropriate.”

The follow-up question: Could withholding legislators’ pay “tip the balance” to legislators accepting the governor’s cuts?

“If it is an attempt to tip the balance, then it is a conflict of interest like California has never seen,” Steinberg said.

Salary matters are best decided by the Citizens Compensation Commission, Steinberg said, and legislators should not be forced to determine their vote based on whether or not they would be paid.

(Well, that would be news to voters, who indeed voted for Proposition 25 to provide an incentive to legislators to approve a budget on time.)

“We cannot vote on matters on which we have a personal interest,” he said. “So, think about how all that could be tipped on its head here.

“If we have to make a decision on choices that have real impact on the people of California and our own well being, I don’t think the author of Proposition 25 or anyone who might look at and respect the separation of powers would see that as any kind of healthy development for California.

“We ought to make the decisions we make on the level of cuts based on the merits.”

(It could be argued — and has been — that by voting for the budget to meet the June 15 deadline, legislators indeed were voting with their own interests in mind.)

Chiang is mulling the issue of whether legislators fulfilled their requirement to approve a balanced budget by the constitutional deadline, as required by a pair of ballot measures approved by voters — last year’s Proposition 25, which requires a budget to be approved by the June 15 constitutional deadline and Proposition 58 from 2004, which requires a balanced budget.

The only reason that Chiang is considering the issue is that the Department of Finance, which typically scores budgets, did not this year because it was vetoed, said Hallye Jordan, spokeswoman for Chiang.

“The Controller is finishing up his analysis to determine whether projected revenues equal or exceed the expenditures authorized by the Legislature, which is the only test spelled out in the Constitution for determining whether a budget is balanced,” Jordan said.

The Controller’s office will compare projected revenues to expenditures authorized in the budget. But the Controller has no authority to determine how valid those projections or expenditures are, only that they pencil out, Jordan said.

Steven Harmon