Will Gov. Jerry Brown's California budget run into legal roadblock?

Governor Jerry Brown might need two-thirds of the California legislature to support $12.5 billion in spending cuts – and that's just the first step towards his balanced budget.

Rich Pedroncelli / AP
California Gov. Jerry Brown answers a question about the $25.4 billion state budget deficit during a news conference at the Capitol in Sacramento, Jan. 10. He plans to cut $12.5 billion in spending, extend $12 billion in expiring taxes, and then pass the budget, in a three-step maneuver that might already have hit a legal roadblock.

California Gov. Jerry Brown's bold bid to fix California's chronic budget woes could find itself at the mercy of a procedural roadblock.

That was the analysis of Mac Taylor, state legislative analyst, who suggested that Governor Brown's multipronged scheme to cut spending and boost revenues might run afoul of a ballot initiative that, ironically, was intended to make passing budgets easier.

If correct, Mr. Taylor's interpretation of Proposition 25 would require two-thirds of the legislature to pass Brown's $12.5 billion in spending cuts, instead of a simple majority.

Brown's office says it is not concerned, and other analysts say he can find a way around the problem if needed. But for Brown, elected on the promise of avoiding "smoke and mirrors," any potential end run around a procedural hurdle might send the wrong message.

“His whole pitch has been ‘no more smoke and mirrors … let’s not play games,’ so while they may be able to get around this legal hurdle, I don’t think he’s going to,” says Barbara O’Connor, director of the Institute for Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento.

In short, the problem is this: Brown's budget plan is so ambitious that he wants to break it up into three interrelated parts. First, the legislature would pass spending cuts, then voters would vote in a special election to extend certain tax rates, and last the legislature would pass a final state budget.

Prop. 25, passed in November, was supposed to help. It allows California to pass its budgets with a simple majority. Previously, two-thirds of each house of the legislature needed to approve a budget.

Now, however, Mr. Taylor says that Prop. 25 might not apply to the first part of Brown's gambit, the spending cuts. Prop. 25, he suggests, applies only to the final state budget vote.

Getting two-thirds of a Democratic legislature to vote for $12.5 billion in spending cuts could be problematic, says Jessica Levinson, adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School.

“This is still a Democratically dominated legislature,” she says. “They may be reticent to enact cuts before knowing that" voters in the special election will agree with Brown's plan to extend expiring taxes worth $12 billion.

“Those who turn out in special elections tend to be more conservative than those who vote in special elections,” she adds, noting that former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was rejected on all four of his proposals in a 2005 special election. "It is difficult to get anything passed in a special election.”

Brown won widespread praise for his budget plan when it was announced. “I loved the fact that he stood up for 46 minutes and deftly explained the complexities of California’s budget,” says Steve Merksamer, former chief of staff to Republican Gov. George Deukmejian.

But for the spending cuts in the first part of Brown's plan, the state would need to change the state's spending formulas – a process that previously required a two-thirds vote in the legislature. Taylor suggested that it still might, because Brown is trying to do it as stand-alone legislation and not as a part of the final state budget. But legal scholars say the law is not exactly clear and open to interpretation.

“What is not known is if those law changes are contingent on certain programs like welfare being insulated from such changes," says Professor Levinson.

H.D. Palmer, spokesman for the state Department of Finance, says the Brown administration is fine with seeking two-thirds approval. “We’d like people to understand that we don’t see a conflict here,” he says.

He has little choice, says Ms. O’Connor.

“His whole ethos is going directly to the people and letting them decide," she says. "He chose the high-risk option here for good reason, and we’ll see if he can get others to follow him.”

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