The Veto Debate

An interesting debate is emerging over the legality of the Governor’s line-item vetoes to the July budget agreement. Assembly Speaker Karen Bass released a legal opinion prepared by the Legislative Counsel, the office that drafts bills and provides legal advice to the Legislature. We haven’t seen a formal response from the Governor’s office. However, John Myers’ California Capitol Notes’ article on this issue links to a blog post by the Department of Finance’s Chief Counsel on Fox and Hounds. Now one might ask why the head lawyer for the Department of Finance is blogging on a site managed by the former president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, but that’s a subject for another day.

We’ve been silent up until now on this issue because it addresses an arcane, and largely untested, area of law –what does and what does not constitute an appropriation for purposes of determining whether the Governor can exercise his line-item veto authority. The Legislative Counsel opinion on this issue, which is not binding, but which does represent the formal legal opinion of the non-partisan Counsel’s office, makes a cogent argument for why the Governor exceeded his legal authority. Given the depth and severity of the vetoes – which included elimination of all state funding for community clinic programs and domestic violence shelter programs – litigation to resolve this debate appears likely. Absent clear direction from the courts, we’re sympathetic to the position outlined in a Los Angeles Times editorial printed earlier this week that argues that the Governor’s recent actions establish a troubling precedent that would further shift power over the budget away from the Legislature toward the executive branch of government.

While the Governor’s vetoes provide a stark reminder of the scope and magnitude of the reductions in the recent budget agreement, they represent a tiny fraction – just 3.0 percent – of the total cuts in the July package. The $50 million “blue penciled” from the Healthy Families Program, for example, is less than the $124 million cut approved by the Legislature. Debate over the legality of the Governor’s vetoes shouldn’t divert attention from the underlying fact that absent additional revenues, future budgets will continue to erode the quality of public services that Californians and the future of the state’s economy depend on.

– Jean Ross

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