The Costly Consequences of Illegal Budgeting

Here at Calitics we’ve been noticing a trend over the last few budget cycles – the frequent use of illegal actions to claim that there is a balanced budget. Arnold Schwarzenegger is the worst offender here, though the Legislature as a whole has proven too willing to go along with these practices.

Thankfully Californians hurt by these reckless and economically indefensible budget cuts are not taking the lawbreaking lying down. Evan Halper at the LA Times reports on the rising number of lawsuits being filed and, increasingly, being won to block the cuts:

Lawyers are being drafted in droves to unravel spending plans passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor. The goal of these litigators is to get back money their clients lost in the budget process. They are having considerable success, winning one lawsuit after another, costing the state billions of dollars and throwing California’s budget process into further tumult.

In the last few months alone, the courts added more than a billion dollars to the state’s deficit by declaring illegal reductions in healthcare services, redevelopment agency funds and transportation spending. Another ruling threatens to deprive California of all its federal stimulus money if the state does not rescind a cut to the salaries of home healthcare workers.

Unfortunately Halper’s tone makes this sound like a bunch of ambulance chasers are taking advantage of the state’s financial crisis to enrich themselves and reverse a fair outcome of a democratic process. Nothing could be further from the truth. The lawsuits are typically filed on behalf of working-class Californians who are being made to bear the brunt of these cuts, whether it’s a reduction to their already paltry pay, loss of their health care, or loss of their means to get to work.

Halper’s article goes further in stacking the deck against Californians affected by the cuts. Instead of emphasizing the fact that numerous court cases on a variety of budget subjects have found major pieces of recent budget deals to be illegal, instead of questioning why the Legislature and the governor feel they can blithely ignore the law whenever they feel like it, Halper lays the blame for this at the feet of voters, who he casts as being reckless and profligate:

The attorneys are seizing on state laws that were drafted in sunnier economic times, some of which were put in place by citizen initiative. They created new programs or expanded existing ones and contained language intended to solidify the place of those programs in state government. Now, the state is broke, and lawmakers and the governor are finding their attempts to take money from the programs rebuffed by the courts. Just the lawsuits themselves cost the state millions of dollars in attorney salaries and other legal fees.

Of course those efforts are being rebuffed – the law and the state constitution are unmistakably clear here.

What Halper deliberately leaves out is the fact that most ballot-box budgeting isn’t due to voters who don’t know what they are doing. Instead it is typically a reaction to legislative failure to protect vital services. The grandaddy of all “ballot-box budgeting”, Proposition 98, was passed in 1988 as a reaction to a series of cuts in education funding during the 1980s. Voters, who have never been offered an opportunity to revisit the core elements of Prop 13 and have only once been asked to revisit the 2/3rds rule, understandably grow frustrated with the legislature’s unwillingness to protect the core services of state government and those that depend on those services to survive and thrive.

What the frequent lawbreaking makes clear is that in Sacramento, the only laws that truly matter are those laid down in 1978 by Howard Jarvis, and enforced by the kangaroo courts of the California Chamber of Commerce and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. The legislature and the governor are so determined to avoid tax increases, even when they make more economic sense than spending cuts, that they will break the law rather than offend Jarvis’s ghost.

Legislators and reporters may not like it, but this is precisely why American governments have three coequal branches – to enable the judiciary to uphold rights and laws when the legislature and the executive choose to ignore them out of a misguided concept of political expediency.

Let a thousand lawsuits bloom.

4 thoughts on “The Costly Consequences of Illegal Budgeting”

  1. rather than take seize money from cities and counties.    Of course, we can always start asking the state’s corporations to pay their fair share.

  2. Prop 98 was a result of draconian cuts along the lines of what we are seeing this year. When I was a freshman in high school, our school cut back so hard that it was not possible to take enough classes to both graduate and meet UC requirements without going to summer school.

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