PD Editorial: Taking a bite out of lawmaker paychecks

by Editorial, Press Democrat

When California voters erased the two-thirds majority rule for passing a state budget, they added teeth to the June 15 deadline for legislative approval.

No budget, no pay.

The standard is simple, it’s straightforward, and it reflects a value that all too often seems foreign to the political process ‘ accountability.

Wednesday is the deadline for the 2011-12 budget, and, to their credit, legislators, mostly Democrats, have delivered $11.2 billion in spending cuts. Coupled with an unexpected surge in income tax revenue, those cuts reduced the state’s projected deficit from $26 billion to about $9.6 billion.

But the job isn’t done ‘ the state constitution requires a balanced budget.

Most of the North Bay’s legislators say they are prepared for the consequences if they don’t finish their work on time. But one active supporter of Proposition 25, the initiative that rescinded the two-thirds rule, appears to be having some second thoughts.

‘It puts us in a difficult position because it holds the sword of Damocles over legislators’ heads,’ state Sen. Noreen Evans told the Sacramento Bee last week. ‘It creates a perverse incentive to adopt a budget whether or not it is the best one for the people of California.’

Like Evans, we supported Proposition 25, and we did so understanding that it could put some legislators in a financial squeeze ‘ just like California’s prolonged budget stand-offs put pressure on the state employees, vendors and others who went unpaid for weeks or months.

The no budget, no pay provision wasn’t added after Proposition 25 passed. To the contrary, holding legislators accountable was a cornerstone of the yes-on-25 campaign.

‘Prop. 25 helps fix the problem two ways,’ a ballot argument said. ‘First, it prevents legislators from collecting pay and benefits every day they fail to pass an on-time budget ‘ money they can’t recover when they do pass the budget.’ Eliminating the two-thirds rule was No. 2, according to the argument signed by Attorney General Bill Lockyer and the leaders of the League of Women Voters and the Consumer Federation of California.

Evans is right that Republican recalcitrance has prevented Democrats from scheduling a special election on temporary taxes to close the rest of the budget gap. The GOP also blocked budgets last year and for several years before that, ultimately prompting the Democrats’ allies in organized labor to put Proposition 25 on the ballot.

They didn’t ask for the ability to raise taxes with less than a two-thirds majority because voters wouldn’t have given it to them. And they never will if legislators don’t demonstrate that they can responsibly manage the resources they are given.

They may not be optimal, but there are options. Democrats can pass an all-cuts budget and see if voters are prepared to live with the consequences. They can pass pending legislation allowing local voters to impose taxes for education and other services facing state cutbacks. They can keep talking with the handful of Republicans open to compromise.

But if they ignore the deadline yet again, they don’t deserve to be paid.