California Lawmakers Sue Controller for Withholding Their Pay

California’s legislative leaders sued state Controller John Chiang, saying he overstepped his constitutional authority when he withheld their pay last year after they passed a budget he said wasn’t legally balanced.

State Assembly Speaker John Perez and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg challenged the ability of Chiang, the elected controller, to impose his judgment on whether a budget is balanced under a 2010 law that strips lawmakers of pay when they miss a June 15 deadline for passing a budget. All three are Democrats.

Chiang on June 21 docked the pay of the entire legislature, concluding that the $86.6 billion general-fund spending plan they had passed six days earlier was incomplete and built on faulty assumptions. He said he was acting under Proposition 25, which also reduced the amount of votes needed to pass a budget to a simple majority.

“It is the legislature’s job to determine expenditures and revenues,” Steinberg told reporters in Sacramento today. “It’s our job.”

Steinberg and Perez said the lawsuit, filed in Sacramento County Superior Court, doesn’t seek to recoup pay lost between June 15 and the passage of the final budget almost two weeks later. Rather, it asks the court to rule that Chiang doesn’t have the authority to declare a budget balanced.

Democrats passed a spending plan by their constitutional deadline of June 15 after Republicans blocked a proposal by Democratic Governor Jerry Brown to raise taxes. Brown vetoed the budget and a compromise was passed by Democrats before the start of the fiscal year July 1.

‘Most Important Point’

“The most important point here is to enforce the voters’ will to identify whether there is a balanced budget,” Chiang said in an interview at a pension-fund board meeting in Monterey, California. “That’s ultimately the key question. We believe we are correct but we are fine with having the courts decide.”

Brown has proposed a plan that counts on almost $7 billion in higher income and sales tax revenue he wants voters to approve in November. The budget includes a “trigger” that would cut about $5 billion from schools if voters reject the taxes.

“This is not the beginning of a battle with the governor and the controller,” Steinberg told reporters in the statehouse. “This case will proceed quietly.”

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