Sunday, August 16, 2009




To most Californians who have noticed it, the ongoing dispute over the legality of half a billion dollars’ worth of late-July budget vetoes by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger looks like a schoolyard squabble. You have the governor and the Democratic leaders of the state Legislature bashing each other and hauling out lawyers to make predictably partisan arguments.

But there’s more going on here. What’s happening is an attempt by Schwarzenegger to remake California government in a more authoritarian form against the express wishes of the people and their elected representatives.

Here’s the essence of the dispute: Back in February, the governor signed a budget bill designed to take the state through the end of the fiscal year ending at midsummer of 2010. Before signing, he nixed whatever items he disliked, making use of his line item veto powers.

Tax revenues soon fell far short of the expectations behind that budget, so a new round of negotiations eventually led to July’s budget revision, with many cuts from the February version. Schwarzenegger treated this as a whole new budget, which would give him the right to a fresh round of line item vetoes. But lawmakers said it was not a new budget, just a series of cuts in previously authorized spending. They argue it can’t be a new budget when less than everything is involved, and claim the governor illegally used his line item veto on spending he previously okayed.

Chances are the state Supreme Court will eventually decide this question. When the case gets there, some bright lawyer will surely ask this question: If Schwarzenegger’s actions are legal, why did he need to try twice (unsuccessfully) during the last four years to pass new laws authorizing the precise kinds of actions he's just taken?

For the latest moves amount to a third chapter in Schwarzenegger’s long quest to gain more and more budget powers for himself and future governors.

Back in 2005, he called a special election, spending many millions of dollars and endless energy while trying unsuccessfully to pass five ballot initiatives designed to give him and his successors vastly more power. The key measure then was Proposition 76, which aimed to let governors cut spending in midyear wherever and however they like anytime they so much as say they think a deficit might be on the horizon. Yes, that measure would have required governors to inform legislators 45 days in advance and give them a chance to make their own cuts. But since any budget actions take a two-thirds vote of the Legislature, reality would assure that governors make all decisions.

After that idea lost by a wide margin, Schwarzenegger stayed silent on the matter almost three years. But he was back in 2008, including in his proposed budget then a provision mandating that whenever a governor declares a fiscal emergency and legislators don’t make all the cuts he likes, the governor could step in and make cuts for them.

Both the 2005 initiative and the 2008 proposal sought to give California governors financial powers exceeding those enjoyed by the president of the United States or any other governor. That shouldn’t have been a surprise: Schwarzenegger mused early in his tenure that life would be much easier if only he were a dictator.

In fact, what he’s done this year looks almost precisely like what he attempted in 2005 and 2008. He declared a fiscal emergency and unilaterally cut state worker hours and salaries. Then, when legislators didn’t make enough other cuts to suit him, he made vetoes where and as he saw fit. It’s almost a complete acting out of his prior proposals.

Schwarzenegger essentially ignored the fact his 2005 proposition failed miserably at the polls, along with the rest of his so-called reform package, and the fact his 2008 proposal never made it out of any legislative committee.

When this year’s financial crisis came along, Schwarzenegger tried to do on his own what neither voters nor lawmakers would allow. Now he has set a precedent that will stand for many years to come unless a new lawsuit by Senate President Darrell Steinberg or another like it overturns his action.

How likely is that? “It’s clear Schwarzenegger is trying to exercise some unique powers,” says Robert Stern, president of the nonpartisan Center for Governmental Studies. “Does he have those powers? Maybe. But courts don’t usually like to get into power disputes between branches of government like this, so they might just say the solution would be for legislators to override his vetoes.”

If that’s the ruling, Schwarzenegger’s cuts will stand because it would take a two-thirds vote to overturn, and no Republicans would go along.

Which might mean that Schwarzenegger has brought to reality his idea of making California governors fiscal dictators – emperors, Steinberg says – despite the fact those ideas have been outright rejected twice, by the voters and the Legislature. If it stands, this will be a power grab of classic proportions.

Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns, visit

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