Politics

Fact Check: California Democrats Not Done With Budget

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California State Capitol in Sacramento (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

California State Capitol in Sacramento (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

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SACRAMENTO (CBS / AP) — Democratic lawmakers say they balanced California’s budget and passed it on time for the second year in a row—an achievement they say will begin to restore public confidence in the state Legislature.

But is the budget really done? No.

Lawmakers last week passed the main budget bill calling for $92 billion in state spending for the fiscal year starting July 1, but they didn’t take up about 20 companion measures known as “trailer bills.”

Such supporting legislation contains the implementing language of the budget and directs the state on the most contentious issues from welfare and health care cuts to funding for jail construction and the first leg of a bullet train.

Both houses scheduled floor sessions this week to potentially take up more trailer bills. At the same time, Democratic leaders continue to negotiate with Gov. Jerry Brown on the level of cuts to welfare and other sticking points.

“Budgets are tough because finances are hard to come by,” Brown told reporters Tuesday. “We’re not ready yet.”

Assembly Speaker John Perez said the action taken Friday by the Legislature “balances the budget and puts California on track.” The plan to close a $15.7 billion shortfall relies heavily on the assumption that voters will approve a tax increase on the November ballot. If the ballot measure fails, automatic cuts will trigger and drastically reduce funding to public schools.

Tax opponents say Democrats passed an incomplete budget filled with gimmicks so they can continue getting paid, referring to a provision in California law that blocks pay for legislators if they fail to pass a budget on time.

Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, an anti-tax group, said even last year’s budget was filled with overly optimistic assumptions about tax collections.

“On Friday, legislators sent to you the latest spending plan that was, once again, billions of dollars short of a balanced budget,” Coupal wrote in a newsletter to supporters. “Why? Because legislators knew that as long as they sent you a ‘budget’— no matter how unbalanced—they would still get their paychecks. This is an insult to the intelligence of California voters.”

No one this year has challenged whether lawmakers have met their requirement for passing a prompt budget under Proposition 25, a 2010 voter-approved measure that allows Democrats to pass the budget on a one-party vote.

State Treasurer Bill Lockyer said he believed the plan is “financeable,” meaning it would allow the state to borrow an estimated $10 billion for daily cash flow needs.

In a budget dispute last year, the state controller tried to halt lawmakers’ pay for 12 days after he concluded they had failed to meet their constitutional June 15 deadline for passing a balanced budget. However, a judge shot down the move, saying the controller’s office lacked such authority.

Although Democrats passed an initial spending plan to meet the deadline, Brown vetoed it and said it was unbalanced. A second budget was passed June 28, 2011.

At the time, an attorney representing the controller had warned that the judge was overlooking voters’ demands for timely, balanced budgets from the Legislature.

“You could take a piece of paper and write, ‘We estimate revenues will meet spending’ and you could wrap it around a ham sandwich and you could send it over to the governor and you can call it budget and you can keep your pay,” said attorney Ross Moody. “But it’s still a ham sandwich.”

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said Monday that Democrats didn’t send the governor “a nothing budget.” He suggested the differences with the governor are small.

“I think the single biggest symbol of people’s frustration with the state of California and certainly the state Legislature, are these interminably late budgets. It became kind of a ritual and not a fun ritual by the way,” Steinberg said. “I know that over time that will help renew confidence by the people in state government.”

According to the latest statewide survey by the Public Policy Institute of California, 17 percent of likely voters approve of the Legislature. Brown has 42 percent approval.

(Copyright 2012 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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