Say this for the $92 billion budget that California’s legislature sent to Governor Jerry Brown on Friday: at least it wasn’t late. “The deadline was met,” state senate leader Darrell Steinberg announced with little fanfare or much evident pride. The Sacramento Democrat added: “We passed a budget today that is balanced”—which the state’s constitution now requires lawmakers to do by June 15, or they lose their salaries and daily expense allowances. But the legislature’s work isn’t done, and Brown has until July 1 to sign the spending plan, veto it in part, or void it entirely. And the fact is, in the Golden State, it’s much easier for the legislature to claim the budget is balanced than to balance an actual budget.
This is the second year lawmakers had to act before a hard deadline. Last year, the legislature assembled a budget so flimsy that even Brown couldn’t concoct a plausible excuse to sign it. “I don’t want to see more billions of borrowing, legal maneuvers that are questionable and a budget that will not stand the test of time,” the governor said in his veto message, to Democrats’ dismay. Less than two weeks later, however, Brown signed a budget with all of those defects intact, though they were somewhat more disguised. In the interim, state controller John Chiang withheld legislators’ pay and per-diem payments, as a 2010 voter-approved amendment clearly mandated. Legislators sued, arguing that Chiang misinterpreted the deadline requirement. Incredibly, a Sacramento superior court judge sided with the legislators. As long as a majority passes a budget that’s balanced “on its face” by June 15, the judge ruled, lawmakers have met their constitutional obligation.