California meltdown

A weekly flyover of the state budget crisis

Last week ended with a federal three-judge panel warning about prison overcrowding and ordering that 40,000 state prisoners be released in the next two years. As if to prove the point, last Saturday (Aug. 8) inmates rioted for 11 hours at the state prison in Chino. Coverage noted that two years ago a national expert had warned the place was “a serious disturbance waiting to happen.” It was that kind of week.

Aug. 5: The Legislative Counsel Bureau issues a four-page opinion asserting that most of Gov. Schwarzenegger’s line-item vetoes, made when he signed the budget revision legislation on July 28, are illegal. The governor cut an addition $489 million from the budget, most of it from health and human-services programs.

Aug. 7: State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg announces he intends to sue the governor over his line-item veto cuts. A Governor’s Office spokesman, Aaron McLear, responds that the governor’s constitutional authority to veto appropriations is “unquestioned and will be upheld by the courts.”

Aug. 8: Rioting inmates smash and burn buildings and furniture at the state prison in Chino. The riot is racially based, with African-American prison gangs fighting Latino gangs in hand-to-hand combat. There are no deaths, but 175 men are injured. The prison houses twice as many inmates as it has space for.

Aug. 9: The Sacramento Bee reports that, despite the historic recession and subsequent budget cuts, the state of California is continuing to hire new employees. “About 4,000 more full-time workers drew state checks in June compared to a year ago,” reporter Jon Ortiz writes. Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear attributes the increase to increased demands for services during the recession and other factors beyond the governor’s control. Monthly payroll costs have dropped nearly 10 percent because of furloughs, McLear says.

Aug. 10: Los Angeles Times reporter Evan Harper writes that “Lawyers are being drafted in droves to unravel spending plans passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor.” And they’re having “considerable success, winning one lawsuit after another, costing the state billions of dollars and throwing California’s budget process into further turmoil.” Among the reductions nixed by the courts: health-care services, redevelopment-agency funds and transportation spending. “Lawsuits are one reason most in Sacramento expect a quick collapse of the spending plan the governor signed last month to wipe out a deficit of about $24 billion,” Harper adds. “There is talk of the governor needing to call an emergency session in the fall so lawmakers can get back to work keeping the state solvent.”

Aug. 11: Steinberg files suit in San Francisco Superior Court, charging that Schwarzenegger exercised “authority that belongs solely to the Legislature” under the state constitution, according to the Sacramento Bee. Jim Evans, Steinberg’s communications director, states in a press release that the case is about separation of powers: “What’s really at stake is the protection of the equal relationship between the executive and legislative branches of state government.” For his part McLear tells the Bee, “The governor absolutely has the authority to veto appropriations. … The real question is, why are Democrats focused on fruitless legal battles that dig the state back into a deficit?”