California Legislature passes a self-serving sham budget

The California Legislature passed a state budget on Monday, but it was just a self-serving charade because there are still issues to be settled.

The Legislature’s Democratic supermajority put on something of a show Monday as they pretended to pass a new state budget.

There were floor speeches, formal roll call votes and a deluge of self-congratulatory statements after the day’s activities.

“The budget we’re sending to Governor Newsom reflects responsible budgeting as the Legislature’s top priority and makes vital investments in California’s future,” Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon and Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins said in a post-session statement.

However, it was just a sham driven by the state constitution’s requirement that legislators pass a budget by June 15 or see their salaries suspended.

Republican Sen. James Nielsen captured the situation when he said, “This is a fake budget. It’s a feel-good budget. It’s a let-us-get-paid budget. But what we’re voting on is not going to be the budget.”

It’s not going to be the budget because Rendon and Atkins still must settle disagreements with Gov. Gavin Newsom, not only on how much to spend but even how much revenue they have to spend.

The two budgets are perhaps 90% in agreement but in a spending plan that tops $200 billion, 10% is still a lot of money.

Monday’s charade caps decades of political wrangling over how state budgets should be drafted.

Until the early 1970s, budgets were typically written in secret by a few legislators and the governor’s office but that practice ended when one legislator, facing a tough re-election campaign, loaded up a budget with pork barrel projects for his district.

The legislator was stripped of his position, his budget was set aside and new, seemingly more transparent, procedures were adopted. Eventually, however, the process drifted back into secret negotiations between the governor and a “Big 5” of legislative leaders that included Republicans because the budget required two-thirds votes for enactment.

A decade ago, the Big 5 became the Big 3, excluding Republicans, after voters approved a 2010 ballot measure, largely sponsored by public employee unions, that reduced the vote needed to pass a budget to a simple majority.

Proposition 25’s sponsors cited months-long delays in passing budgets during Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger’s governorship as a rationale and included the threat of legislators’ losing their salaries to make it more attractive to voters.

The revised system had its first test in 2011, the first year of Jerry Brown’s second governorship. The Legislature sent a budget to Brown and he vetoed it, declaring it to be unconstitutionally unbalanced.

Then-Controller John Chiang backed Brown by suspending legislators’ salaries. The Legislature sued and won a judicial declaration that only the Legislature itself could determine whether the June 15 deadline had been met.

Legislators were thus empowered to pass what they deemed to be a budget bill by June 15, even though — as is happening this year — it may not be a finished product.

Proposition 25 contained another piece of procedural mischief, allowing any bill the Legislature declared to be connected to the budget to also be enacted with simple majority votes. Thus, budget “trailer bills” often became vehicles for major changes in state policy without full committee hearings and other traditional exposure.

The misuse of trailer bills sparked another ballot measure in 2016, Proposition 54, requiring that bills be in print — and available for public viewing — for at least 72 hours before enactment. It didn’t stop the procedural abuses, but at least made them more obvious.

Newsom and legislators will eventually settle their differences, but the complete budget picture will not emerge for weeks and even months as trailer bills and budget modification measures dribble out of the Capitol.