Court backs governor’s use of line-item veto

October 4, 2010

By Daniel Weintraub

The California Supreme Court decided two cases today involving the governor’s budget powers. We analyzed the court’s decision in the furloughs case here.

Probably of more long-lasting importance was the court’s unanimous decision in a case involving the governor’s line-item veto authority. That case arose out of the governor’s action last year in which he reduced appropriations in a legislative bill that itself was reducing spending levels in an already-adopted budget.

The governor’s vetoes cut nearly half a billion dollars from health and social service programs, including an AIDS program, the Healthy Families insurance program, assistance for the aging and developmentally disabled, and in-home care for the aged and disabled.

Lawmakers and supporters of the programs the governor cut cried foul, and sued. They argued that because the Legislature was not appropriating new money but was instead reducing an existing appropriation, the governor had no right to use his line-item veto to selectively reduce those appropriations even further. Allowing this, they argued, gave the governor “two bites” at the apple, once when the budget was approved and sent to his desk, and again when the Legislature used a separate bill to reduce some of the spending levels approved earlier.

The court emphatically disagreed. It ruled that there was no difference between the governor reducing spending in a budget bill or other simple spending bill, and doing so in a bill that was meant to reduce, rather than increase, spending.

The Legislature’s Democratic leaders, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Assembly Speaker John Perez, reacted angrily to the court ruling, saying that it would upset the constitutional balance of powers by giving the governor too much power. The decision, Steinberg said, “will only worsen our already broken budget system.

The ruling might or might not worsen the state’s budget system, but it definitely cements the governor’s power to reduce spending in any spending bill the Legislature sends him. Ironically, the ruling might make lawmakers more reluctant to re-open a budget when a deficit is looming, because to do so would now allow a governor to make deeper cuts than the Legislature might be willing to enact on its own.

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