Spokesman says legislature’s failure to submit balanced budget prompted further cuts; Steinberg says governor overstepped his bounds
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — One of California’s top lawmakers filed a lawsuit Monday, Aug. 10 against Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger over what he considers illegal vetoes of funding for social service programs.
Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, a Democrat, said he is challenging the Republican governor’s decision to cut an additional $489 million from the programs as part of the budget process.
Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear said the administration was confident the governor would prevail in a court challenge.
"Because the legislature failed to send him a balanced budget after months of debate the governor was forced to make these difficult cuts," McLear said.
Steinberg said the governor overstepped his constitutional authority last month when he made more cuts to the Legislature’s revised spending plan.
Schwarzenegger did not tell the four legislative leaders he would make additional cuts when he struck an agreement with them, Steinberg said.
Lawmakers took a number of steps to address a steep budget deficit, including program cuts, shifting money from other areas and accelerating tax collections. The solutions totaled $24.2 billion.
Before signing the budget package last month, the governor made additional cuts to child welfare programs, health care for the poor and AIDS prevention efforts. He also reduced state parks funding.
"Taking another whack out of the most vulnerable Californians is wrong," Steinberg said. "Most significantly, it violates a separation of powers principles of the California constitution."
Steinberg filed the lawsuit in San Francisco County Superior Court and the case was assigned to Judge Peter Busch.
Steinberg — backed by a new legal analysis from the nonpartisan Legislative Counsel’s Office — argued that Schwarzenegger can veto only legislative spending increases, not spending reductions.
A legislative spending cut is not an appropriation "because it does not by itself grant authority to spend money," attorney Robin Johansen said in the court filing.
The lawsuit could distract the governor and lawmakers from addressing the state’s other pressing needs.
"It suggests that the governor and Legislature still have unfinished business with the budget, even as they seek to turn to other issues such as water," said Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan think tank based in San Francisco.
Steve Merksamer, an attorney who served as chief of staff under former Republican Gov. George Deukmejian, was unaware of any previous direct challenges to a governor’s veto authority.
He said Steinberg could have a hard time arguing the governor overstepped his bounds, since Schwarzenegger’s so-called "blue pencil" authority is essential to his role in producing a balanced budget for the state.
"I’d be surprised if the governor wasn’t well within his rights," Merksamer said.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 7, 2009.