State budget process is broken

Well, they’ve done it again. Since the passage of Proposition 25 more than a decade ago, the California Legislature has passed what can only be described as fake budgets. The 2021-22 “budget” passed last week is no exception.

Despite the self-congratulatory preening of Democratic leadership, the “on-time” budget is neither on-time nor is it a real budget. The bill laughingly labeled the budget bill (AB 128) is not a true annual spending plan for the state, as it leaves many issues unresolved.

And how will those unresolved issues be resolved? Through open public hearings with input from all members of the legislature? Of course not. Substantial provisions of the budget will be negotiated behind closed doors among just three people: The two Democratic legislative leaders and Governor Gavin Newsom. Republicans, the media and the public are shut out of providing any comment or input.

Longtime political writer Dan Walters called it “a self-serving sham budget.” The Sacramento Bee hit the nail on the head regarding the real reason the budget bill passed last week with the headline, “California lawmakers pass budget that ensures they get paid — but still need deal with Newsom.”

This perverted process came about thanks to the biggest bait-and-switch campaign ever perpetrated on California voters. Proposition 25, entitled the “On-Time Budget Act of 2010,” contained three separate lies. First, voters were told that budgets would be passed on time, meaning June 15th each year. Second, the measure would increase budget transparency. Third, legislators would forfeit their pay if the budget were not passed on time. Each of those representations are so contrary to the truth that even Pinocchio would blush.

Ever since Proposition 25 became law, dozens of bills have been designated as “budget related” even though they have nothing to do with the budget, just to take advantage of Prop. 25’s easier rules for passing bills.

The majority party uses the “budget trailer bill” label to get around constitutional requirements for legislation. Some bills that would otherwise require a two-thirds vote can suddenly become an “amendment” into a budget bill, and then they can be passed with only a simple majority. There’s no requirement for a hearing in the legislative committee that has jurisdiction over that area of policy, and the public has no opportunity to submit public comments or to question their representatives about their votes for the bill.

Newly enacted laws typically take effect at some point in the future, but if an “urgency” is declared, a two-thirds vote in the legislature allows a new law to take effect immediately. Here’s the trick with budget trailer bills: they always take effect immediately, and they require only a simple majority vote. So a controversial law can be slipped into a budget bill and before you know it happened, you could be in trouble for violating it.

The sad reality is that currently California has no budget process. The “budget bill,” which is supposed to be a comprehensive spending plan for the fiscal year reflecting the policy priorities of the state, has now morphed into an ongoing legislative process that has no beginning and no end. “Budget bills” are now being enacted nearly a year after the June 15th deadline, despite legislators having collected their paychecks in the meantime.

More and more, voters are comprehending that something very corrupt is happening in Sacramento. The pandemic has awakened more citizens to the dysfunction and dishonesty that defines California politics. Luckily, the more they know, the sooner they can take corrective action at the ballot box.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.