Democratic legislative leaders sued Controller John Chiang on Tuesday to have the courts determine whether the state's cash manager abused his authority by cutting off their paychecks in last year's budget fight.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez said Chiang illegally intervened in legislative matters when he docked their pay for passing what he considered an unbalanced budget.
Some lawmakers remain sore over the loss of roughly $4,830 each, but the two leaders said they are not asking for back earnings in their Sacramento Superior Court complaint. Instead, they said they want a judge to decide whether the controller can punish lawmakers again this summer and in the future for budgets he deems unconstitutional. "The speaker and I are temporary stewards of these leadership positions," said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento. "We have an obligation to govern now, and we have an obligation to stand and defend the legislative branch of government and its authority for the years and decades ahead when others occupy these positions."
Chiang, a fellow Democrat, won praise from the public when he cut off legislative pay last June using unprecedented powers under a 2010 voter-approved initiative, Proposition 25, in conjunction with a 2004 measure requiring a balanced budget. Proposition 25, backed by Democrats, gave the majority party power to pass budgets, but not taxes. As a sweetener, they added a provision that also docked legislative pay and expense money for every day the budget is late after the June 15 deadline.
Majority Democrats sent Gov. Jerry Brown an on-time budget last year, but the governor vetoed the plan, calling it "not a balanced solution." Lawmakers thought sending Brown a budget was sufficient to receive pay, but Chiang doused that view five days later when he said their plan ran afoul of the constitution because it was unbalanced.
Chiang, in a phone interview, said Tuesday he welcomes a court interpretation of his role. "This is very simple, it's all about enforcing the voters' will," he said. "And the question is, who enforces the voters' will?"
Brown and lawmakers ultimately reached agreement on June 27, costing rank-and-file lawmakers 12 days' worth of pay and expense money. The state saved a total of $583,200, though that money stayed in the Legislature's operating coffers, the same account that Steinberg and Pérez are now using to pay for attorney fees.
The legislative leaders hired Arthur G. Scotland, retired presiding justice of the 3rd District Court of Appeal, as well as Los Angeles firm Strumwasser & Woocher. Billing rates range from $435 per hour for the two lead attorneys to $130 per hour for a paralegal, according to the leaders' offices.
If the decision moves to the 3rd District Court of Appeal, Scotland said he would withdraw from the case.
Chiang said last year the initial budget was not balanced largely because, according to his reading of the state constitution, it underfunded schools by $1.3 billion. He also said lawmakers failed to pass all of the bills necessary to carry out a balanced budget.
Scotland said the controller has a ministerial role to pay lawmakers, not an interpretative position. He also said lawmakers have the power to determine whether a budget is balanced under the constitution.
Under Chiang's interpretation, a controller would intervene only after a governor vetoes the budget, which Brown did for the first time in state history last year.
If Chiang retains his power, Brown will have greater leverage over lawmakers by threatening a veto with pay consequences. Already, Democratic lawmakers are hesitant to cut health and welfare programs and make school funding reliant on Brown's tax hike, as the governor has asked.
Steinberg said that aside from the governor's normal veto powers, "neither the governor nor any member of the executive branch may brandish the threat of withholding legislative pay because they disagree with the decisions made by the legislative branch."
John Sims, a professor at the University of the Pacific's McGeorge School of Law, called it a "solid" argument.
"The controller is really claiming he can unilaterally take control of the process," said Sims, who teaches constitutional law. "I just don't see that in the statute."
Asked whether lawmakers wanted to fight for back pay, Steinberg said, "Some did, but we chose not to."
The leaders seemed well aware that challenging Chiang's popular decision would invite public acrimony.
"Let me be clear from the outset, both the pro tem and I have waived our claims for remuneration should this lawsuit succeed," Pérez said. "This is fundamentally an issue of separation of powers."
Asked whether the lawsuit would lead to bad publicity, Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, said, "There's always that risk, but I think it's worth it since we're not asking for the money back."
But Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, said Tuesday's action "shows a fundamental disconnect between our elected leaders and the people they represent, irrespective of the legal argument. It just looks bad. There's not enough lipstick you can put on this pig to make it look good."