State lawmakers say freeze in pay is unfair


Controller John Chiang is using a new law that hits lawmakers right in the wallet -- no budget, no pay.

The impact on legislators' wallets could be severe. Until lawmakers approve a budget that Chiang deems balanced, rank-and-file lawmakers, who are paid at the end of each month, will be docked about $400 a day. That sum is the daily portion of their $95,291 salary plus a $142 per diem allowance.

Chiang said the forfeiture is required because the budget that Democrats approved spent more - $1.85 billion more, in his analysis - than it collected in taxes and fees.

While lawmakers continued to work without pay, questions are still swirling over whether loss of pay is legal -- after all, critics say one branch of government shouldn't be able to hold power over another.

"I think the controller's action raises significant constitutional issues about the balance of powers, the separation of Legislative and Executive branches," said Assembly member Marty Block, D-San Diego.

Some Democrats are quietly saying a lawsuit should be filed challenging Chiang's decision for withholding pay as a consequence for not passing a balanced state budget, but their leadership is mum about whether they'll do so.

"The question before us right now is getting a budget done that we can agree with the Governor," said Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles. "That's what we're focused on."

Democrats rushed through a state budget last week just before the deadline, some say to avoid getting their salaries cut.

Voters approved Proposition 25 last fall allowing the state to cut paychecks in instances of late budgets. Nowhere, though, does it say the budget had to be balanced. It also doesn't specifically give the controller power to slash checks, but the original supports of Prop 25 say the voters' intent was clear.

"I think this is a state office holder who writes checks, determining that he can't write this check because Proposition 25 says he can't," said former Proposition 25 strategist Richard Temple.

Challenging the pay cut is tricky politically. On the one hand, the pay cut is popular among voters; on the other, a lawsuit to stop the pay cut would make lawmakers even more unpopular.

The smaller checks, though, could be avoided if lawmakers could just come to an agreement on a spending plan that passes the smell test.

Until then, lawmakers lose $400 a day off their paychecks -- that's a $50,000 a day savings to taxpayers.

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