Sunday, July 3, 2011




If there’s one thing that quickly became clear in the wake of state Controller John Chiang’s decision to withhold the pay of California legislators because of their failure to produce a balanced budget by June 15, it was the shallow feeling those officials really hold for values they consistently proclaim while running for office.

Would Republican state senators and Assembly members hold tight to their “no new taxes” pledges and rhetoric even while losing $403 per day in salary and per diem payments? Many did not, saying they’d allow an election on the tax extensions Gov. Jerry Brown says are needed in return for some other concessions.

In the end, they didn’t get those concessions, so they did not sign off on the handshake deal Brown later reached with legislative Democrats.

Would Democrats continue resisting additional cuts in programs they backed while seeking election? They, too, made compromises including more budget slashing for state university and college systems and deferrals for public schools, whose teachers are among their biggest supporters.

No politician will ever admit to going back on campaign pledges. So it will be up to voters to understand the inferences of their actions.

One very significant barometer of deep belief can be time. When a balanced budget plan – one that does not allow voters to decide whether to re-enact about $9 billion worth of taxes that expire (editors: say expired here if using this column after June 30) Friday, even as it depended on the higher tax revenues of the last two months to continue -- emerged quickly, it became plain that money talked loudly to these politicians. Even amounts that are a pittance next to the billions of taxpayer dollars these same folks normally pass out.

Legislators acted far faster than usual, their agreement with Brown coming less than 10 days after Chiang’s action and just 12 days after Brown’s mid-June veto of a Democratic-sponsored budget he labeled as likely to be found at least partly illegal.

Where legislators in previous years often went days, even weeks, without publicly debating the budget after they missed a constitutional June 15 deadline, suddenly they were meeting on weekends. No backyard barbeques or visits with constituents for these folks, not until they got the job done.

Then there was the bleating that followed Chiang’s action, which he took only after determining that the budget vetoed by Brown would not have been balanced, no matter what legislators claimed.

Because Democrats hold vast majorities in both houses of the Legislature, they did most of the whining. Chiang, said Assemblyman Mike Gatto of the San Fernando Valley portion of Los Angeles, “just wants to sit there and beat up on the unpopular kids.” He added that “I now have to explain to my wife and daughter that we won’t be able to pay the bills because a politician chose to grandstand at our expense. California has officially degenerated into a banana republic…”

What Gatto didn’t say is that the pay stoppage was dictated by a 55 percent majority of voters via last year’s Proposition 25, which Democrats like him strongly backed because it also allows passage of budgets on a simple majority vote. So Chiang, who agonized for days over whether to stop writing paychecks, was merely doing his job.

A possibly more substantial objection came from Democratic state Sen. Noreen Evans of Santa Rosa, who accused the controller of creating “a constitutional crisis, one where the balance of powers in our…government and the separation between the legislative and executive branches of state government has been breached.” Agreed Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento, “The controller’s decision today sets a dangerous precedent.”

They and others apparently didn’t notice any deep constitutional issues in Proposition 25 before their pocketbooks began thinning. If they had, they might have taken up a legal challenge before now.

Essentially, voters said they don’t want lawmakers paid unless and until they perform one of their most elementary tasks, creating a budget. It was unfair for legislators to blast Chiang for doing a job he was elected to do.

But Republicans also did not get paid. Some of them – some Democrats, too – have sufficient personal wealth and other income that $403 per day doesn’t matter much to them. But plenty of folks in both parties began feeling pressure of an unprecedented sort the day their paychecks stopped coming.

How they reacted to that pressure revealed more about them and the lack of depth of their stated beliefs than anything they might ever say.

Elias is author of the current book "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government's Campaign to Squelch It," now available in an updated second edition. His email address is For more Elias columns, go to

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