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Contributors -
Tom McClintock

Mr. McClintock is an expert on matters of the State budget and fiscal discipline. He is a Senator in the California State Legislature and ran for Governor in the 2003 recall election. His valuable website is found at [McClintock index]

Big Five, Big Mistake
Power play trumps state's constitution...

[Tom McClintock] 2/15/05

Of all the factors contributing to California’s fiscal woes, one of the most fundamental and pervasive is the collapse of the constitutional process by which the state budget is developed in the first place.

Ever since the Magna Carta, it has been a settled principle of governance that the authority that requests funds should not be the same one that approves them. This is the heart of our separation of powers, and the most important single mechanism to check the excesses and abuses that occur whenever mere mortals are spending other people’s money.

Following this principle, California’s constitution sets forth a precise procedure for adopting an annual spending plan. As chief executive of the state, the governor submits his request for funds on January 10th of each year. Once he has done so, it is exclusively the legislature’s responsibility to review his request meticulously, openly and independently. On June 15th, the legislature is required to return the budget to the governor, who then re-enters the constitutional process by exercising his power to reduce or eliminate any item that he believes is excessive, checked once again by the legislature’s authority to override vetoes.

During this five-month period of independent legislative consideration, subcommittees that specialize in specific areas of the budget are supposed to revise it item-by-item, while the public is afforded direct input into the expenditure of their money. The subcommittees then deliver their work to the budget committees of each house, which, in turn address the over-arching questions of state finance.

Thus refined, the budget is then debated, amended, and finalized in both houses where all legislators are accorded a voice and a vote on behalf of their constituents. Once each house has independently acted on the budget, a conference committee is convened to resolve the differences between the two houses before the final budget is ratified and returned to the governor.

Over the past 15 years, this constitutional review has been gradually replaced with an extra-constitutional device called the “Big Five,” consisting of the governor and the four legislative leaders.

Last year, the legislature’s consideration of the budget literally collapsed at the subcommittee level with neither house even producing a version of its own. Rather, all significant issues were deferred to the “Big Five,” which met behind closed doors, agreed to a budget, and then delivered it to the legislature for a take-it-or-leave-it vote without public input or serious deliberation.

This brave new system of budgeting short-circuits the checks and balances that have evolved over centuries of legislative practice. The executive not only requests the funds, but also becomes part of the quinquevirate that approves them. By entering the budget negotiations, the governor surrenders his line item veto in deference to the settlement to which he is a party. Instead of the incisive critique by the Legislative Analyst’s Office, the final spending plan is often pieced together with wildly unrealistic assumptions that are exposed only after the budget is adopted.

The “Big Five” began replacing the constitutional structure about the same time that term limits took effect. Before term limits, the legislature had a much stronger institutional identity and tradition that made the surrender of basic constitutional prerogatives unthinkable. Term limits removed that stability and we must now look to other devices to restore it without impeding the free and necessary communication between the executive and legislative branches.

One solution would be a series of internal deadlines for each house to complete each stage of its deliberations. These deadlines could be naturally enhanced by restoring the majority vote for adoption of the budget (the practice in 47 other states) and naturally enforced by prescribing certain budgetary defaults in the event a house fails to act.

This would compel timely progress in advance of the June 15th deadline and remove the “Big Five” as a crucible for drafting the budget at the back end.

In his State of the State Address, Gov. Schwarzenegger recognized that there is something fundamentally wrong with a system that produces chronically late and unbalanced spending plans, and there are many reforms that would help. But the most obvious one is to restore the constitutional process that had produced reasonably balanced and reasonably punctual state budgets for 140 years. CRO




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