Governor Jerry Brown: Unpredictably Consistent When It Comes to the Budget

The Golden State's once and current Governor, Jerry Brown, has made history with two firsts. First, Brown vetoed a budget agreement passed by both houses. Second, Brown kept his word. Brown's veto has been widely reported, but this morning, it was a smart column by the George Skelton of the Los Angeles Times that elucidated Brown's real surprise move - consistency.

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As I wrote here last week, the constitutional deadline to pass a balanced budget was Wednesday June 15th. However, history has also shown that like Brown, California legislators are also consistent. And by that I mean consistently late when it comes to agreeing to a budget.

But California lawmakers bucked the trend and did present Brown with a budget agreement--and with a whopping seven hours to spare. Two recent changes - both due to the recently passed Proposition 25--could account for the legislators' new timely behavior. First, Proposition 25 lowered the threshold to pass a budget from a two-thirds vote of both houses of the legislature to a simple majority vote. In practice, that means Democrats need not entice two Republicans from each house to cross the vast expanse of land we call the aisle and vote to approve the budget. Second, Proposition 25 provided that lawmakers will not get paid from the time the budget is due until the time that California has a budget for the next fiscal year.

There is an interesting sideshow at the circus we call trying to pass a budget in California; it is now unclear as to whether State Controller John Chiang will invoke the second part of Proposition 25 and stop paying legislators. The wording of the law apparently leaves it uncertain whether lawmakers merely have to submit a budget to the governor, or whether that budget must be truly balanced (and presumably not balanced through legally questionable mechanisms and trickery). Lawmakers could face losing about $400 per day. Chiang could make his decision as early as today, so stay tuned.

Brown announced his decision to veto the legislatively-passed budget in a short YouTube video. He began his explanation by stating that "For a decade the can has been kicked down the road and debt has piled up." Translation, no more gimmicks, accounting games, and rosy predictions.

Brown then explained, what he has been attempting to explain since January: why his budget is better. Brown's proposed budget includes a mix of spending cuts and temporary extensions to themselves temporary tax increases. Legislators have largely agreed on the deep spending cuts. Brown vowed to let the voters decide on the tax extensions, but it takes a two-thirds vote of the legislature to agree to put that question on the ballot. That super-majority threshold has thus far been an insurmountable hurdle. (As another note in this saga, as I have previously written about here the taxes Brown sought to extend expire on June 30th. Hence at the end of the month voters will be asked to weigh in on tax "increases" as opposed to "extensions." That will likely make it much more difficult to get voters to agree to such a plan).

Brown concluded by saying he does not want to see "more billions in borrowing, legal maneuvers that are questionable, and a budget that will not stand the test of time." The next test will be whether Brown's veto will bring Republicans back to the bargaining table. Some Republicans have stated that they will agree to put the tax extensions to a vote of the people if questions regarding a state spending cap and pension reform also appear on the ballot. Will Democrats be willing to deal in the face of a conspicuously consistent chief executive?

About the Author

Jessica Levinson is an Associate Clinical Professor at Loyola Law School. She focuses on the intersection of law and government.
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