Should Lawmakers Go Without Pay?

Inside the California State Senate Chamber

As talk of a double-dip recession swirls, so many Californians continue to go with so little. Should lawmakers, albeit temporarily, do the same?

It is perhaps an understatement to say that it has historically been difficult for our legislature to pass a budget on time. Indeed, too often the question seems to be not whether our lawmakers will pass on budget on time, but how late it will be.

But this year was supposed to be different.

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In November of 2010 California voters passed Proposition 25. Under it, only a simple majority of lawmakers are needed to pass a budget. Under the old rule, a two-thirds vote of both houses was required. Proposition 25 was therefore aimed at ending the seemingly ceaseless partisan wrangling over the budget, and preventing a minority from holding the majority hostage with essentially a ransom list of demands in exchange for their votes.

While only a simple majority is needed to pass a budget, a two-thirds vote is still required to raise taxes. That essentially means that only a simple majority vote of lawmakers is needed to pass a budget by cutting funding, but a two-thirds vote is needed if that budget will include increased revenues.

Proposition 25 has one more provision, meant to sweeten the deal for dubious voters. It provides that lawmakers will not be paid from the time a budget is due until an agreement is reached. This portion of Proposition 25 essentially punishes lawmakers for late budgets and/or attempts to incentivize them to pass budgets on time.

Would you work harder, faster and better if you knew you would lose your pay? Or would you kick the deliberative process to the curb and make snap decisions in order to keep your salary coming? Lawmakers may now face that decision.

The budget deadline, June 15, looms large.

There is now some debate about whether Proposition 25 applies to our current situation. State Controller John Chiang has announced that legislators will begin losing their pay this month if they can not agree to a state budget. However, legislative lawyers have contended that a budget bill passed in March prevents the imposition of the Proposition 25's provision regarding legislative pay (it should be noted that the March budget bill still left the state with a budget deficit in the billions).

Regardless of whose interpretation is ultimately correct, lawmakers would have to sue the State Controller in order to get their salary. And that would be a disastrous public relations move for a group of people whose job approval rating hovers around only 20%.

Jessica Levinson writes about the intersection of law and government every Monday. She is an Adjunct Professor at Loyola Law School and the Director of Political Reform at a non-profit, non-partisan think tank.

The photo used on this post is by Flickr user Mathieu Thouvenin. It was used under a Creative Commons License.

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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