Can the governor of California, acting on his own, eliminate all state funding for domestic violence centers and community health clinics? The answer is maybe, if the Legislature hands him on a silver platter the opportunity to do so.
The most recent chapter in California's yearlong budget saga was written by Gov. Schwarzenegger at the end of July when he signed the package of bills approved by lawmakers to close a $24 billion shortfall.
As he did so, Schwarzenegger added nearly $500 million in health and human services cuts to the Legislature's hit list. The governor axed money for AIDS prevention programs, domestic violence shelters, community clinics and other services. All were cutbacks he had proposed earlier in the year, but had been rejected by lawmakers and ultimately excluded from the budget deal negotiated between the governor and legislative leaders.
So how was Schwarzenegger able to double-cross lawmakers and make the cuts on his own? He did so by invoking a California governor's powerful ability to make line-item vetoes in annual budget appropriations approved by legislators. Schwarzenegger believes that power also applies in this case, in which the Legislature revised a previously enacted budget by approving spending cuts.
Others disagree, notably Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, who is personally suing Schwarzenegger, challenging the legality of these cuts.
Schwarzenegger's attorney says the legal authority for his actions "is unquestioned" and that any legal effort "to improperly limit the governor's veto authority will be struck down by the courts." The Legislature's nonpartisan legal office has offered an opposite opinion.
On the strength of the citations listed by the administration's attorneys, it would appear that Schwarzenegger may have the stronger legal case, although it is unwise for anyone to try to guess how the courts will rule.
The essence of the legislators' argument is that while the governor has the clear authority to reduce or eliminate line-item appropriations from the annual budget bill, he does not have authority to unilaterally make further cuts after the Legislature acts, as it did in July, to reduce previously approved expenditures.
Schwarzenegger believes he has found a loophole that gives him a power that voters overwhelmingly refused to give him in 2005. He put Proposition 76 on the ballot, which would have given a governor the ability to make midyear spending cuts at his discretion; 62 percent of voters gave a thumbs-down to that idea.
If the governor's unilateral cuts are allowed to stand, it will create an unwelcome precedent that will make it more difficult for future governors and lawmakers to make midyear spending adjustments.
This year, with California at risk of financial meltdown, there was no choice except to revise the budget in midyear.
But, in future years, when revenues dip slightly and minor adjustments would be prudent, lawmakers would be understandably reluctant to pass midyear reductions if, in doing so, they also were giving a governor carte-blanche authority to whack away at whatever state services he or she chooses.
And, in the short term, there is now question as to the value of Schwarzenegger's word. He negotiated a deal, then broke it.
The administration argues that it was the Assembly that didn't follow through on the deal, which forced Schwarzenegger to find additional, nonnegotiated cuts. But Schwarzenegger acquiesced when the Assembly balked at making $1 billion in cuts to local transportation funds negotiated by the governor and leaders of both parties.
From the perspective of Steinberg and the Senate, Schwarzenegger allowed the Assembly to break faith with an agreement, then compounded that by throwing in a double cross of his own.
The best course now would be for Schwarzenegger to rescind the cuts, Steinberg to drop the lawsuit and all parties to commit to finding an equivalent amount of new, agreed-upon budget solutions.
The last thing California needs in this time of crisis is for its leaders to allow a political environment in Sacramento already fouled by partisan disagreement to become incurably poisoned by bipartisan distrust.
Herdt is chief of The Ventura County Star's state bureau. His political blog '95 percent accurate*' is at www.TimmHerdt.com.