Sacramento’s budget games are both silly and harmful to Californians

California’s budget process has become so warped it would make even Niccolò Machiavelli blush. The annual spending plan was never easy for citizens, the media and even political insiders to understand. But for the last decade, it has been perverted into a wholly political process devoid of transparency.

Sacramento politicians will crow that they have faithfully performed their constitutional duty by passing an “on time” budget. True, the main budget bill (Senate Bill 74) was passed on June 15, just hours before the constitutional deadline. But no one should be fooled into thinking that the technical passage of the budget bill has any real meaning. Ever since 2010, it has become common to enact politically motivated legislation in so-called budget “trailer bills” as a means to avoid public scrutiny.

2010 was the year when the budget process was corrupted by the passage of Proposition 25, ironically titled the “On-Time Budget Act of 2010.” (“Trailer bills” and their cousins, “junior budget bills,” are now passed well after the constitutional deadline of June 15th). Voters were told three things about Prop. 25: First, budgets would now be passed on time; second, the budget process would be transparent; and third, legislators would forfeit their pay if the budget was not passed on time. All three were lies. Moreover, because the primary goal of Proposition 25 was to reduce the vote threshold for passage of the budget bill from two-thirds to a simple majority, it deprives the minority party of any meaningful input or oversight.

Proposition 25 perverted the budget process in three distinct ways. First, since 2010, dozens of bills have been designated as “budget related” which have nothing to do with the budget. These bills frequently have some token appropriation for a nominal amount (e.g. $1,000) in a weak effort to say the legislation is somehow related to the budget. This now means that there really isn’t any budget bill at all but an endless series of bills that are introduced throughout the year.

Second, a related abuse by the majority party has been to use the “trailer bill” label to avoid constitutional requirements for legislation that would otherwise require a two-thirds vote. The most common abuses involve bypassing state constitutional provisions that require a two-thirds vote for General Fund appropriations and the general application of the “Urgency Clause” for bills to take effect immediately.

Third, as noted previously, the majority party has succeeded in redefining an “on-time budget” for purposes of getting their paychecks. This has led to the bizarre situation of legislation identified as “budget bills” being enacted nearly a year after the June 15th deadline, despite legislators having collected their paychecks in the meantime.

There have been innumerable abuses, but a few stand out as particularly egregious. This year, for example, hidden within the Public Safety “trailer bill” is language broadening the definition of banned semi-automatic weapons. This substantive legislation will avoid public hearings because it will be deemed “budget related.”

Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association has had some, but not complete, success in fighting these abuses. HJTA won a legal action over a “budget trailer bill” that moved Gov. Jerry Brown’s huge 2012 tax increase proposal (Proposition 30) from the eighth position on the ballot order to number one. (Unfortunately, the decision arrived too late to impact the election and, not surprisingly, Proposition 30 passed).

HJTA has another lawsuit relating to trailer bill abuses which has been pending in the Court of Appeal for more than two years. But what is really needed is a new constitutional amendment to repeal Proposition 25, stop these budget abuses and finally give Californians the transparency they deserve over how their tax dollars are being spent.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.