Until the early 1980s, the track record of the state Legislature for turning
out relatively punctual and balanced state budgets was pretty good. But
something has happened in the last 20 years that dramatically has reduced
its ability to deal competently with the state budget. The result has been
increasingly late and unbalanced spending plans.
It all began, I think, on an early summer’s day in 1983, when the
Legislature had reached a (then) rare impasse in its budget deliberations.
In frustration, Governor George Deukmejian invited the legislative leaders
to his office in an unsuccessful attempt to resolve their differences. He
emerged from the meeting and nobly said, “It’s all my fault. I just couldn’t
bring them together.”
Thus was born the extra-constitutional notion that the governor’s job is to
preside over budget deliberations. From that moment began the gradual rise
of the “Big Five,” which first eclipsed, and in recent years has replaced,
the normal legislative consideration of the state budget.
Today, neither house of the Legislature deliberates independently on a
budget. Although subcommittees still meet, their work is largely irrelevant
to the final product. Instead of each house independently and publicly
considering, debating, analyzing, refining and compromising a state-spending
plan, the matter is simply deferred to a conference committee, whose purpose
is to rubber-stamp whatever is agreed to among the legislative leaders and
the governor behind closed doors.
This process short-circuits most of the safeguards envisioned in our
constitution and denies Californians the care and competence that they
deserve to have exercised when a decision is being made to spend their
The first casualty is the ability of the governor to check legislative
excesses with his line-item veto. Once he becomes a party to the
negotiations, he is morally bound by them and unable to wield his blue
pencil with the freedom and independence that California’s founders
The second casualty is the separation of powers necessary to protect the
treasury. Ever since the Magna Carta, it has been a settled principle of
governance that the authority that requests funds should not be the same one
that approves them. And human nature being what it is, it is equally
important that two houses independently consider a spending plan to protect
the budget from the private agendas of powerful personalities or cabals that
might arise within each house. “Big Five” meetings throw these proven
safeguards into a blender.
The third casualty is the fiscal stability of the state. In the traditional
process, budget numbers are rigorously, independently and incisively
analyzed by the Legislative Analyst’s Office, the press and every interested
party representing taxpayers and tax-consumers. Today, the state’s spending
plan is often slapped together at the last minute behind closed doors with
wildly unrealistic assumptions that are discovered only after the budget is
The fourth casualty is the integrity of the budget process itself. Justice
Brandeis often noted that “sunlight is the best of disinfectants.” Public
scrutiny assures that questionable spending can be fully exposed before it
is enacted. There is no sunlight in the locked and guarded warrens where the
“Big Five” meet.
It is said that deferring the work of 120 legislators to a committee of six
is more efficient. Certainly the traditional process of legislating–where
all legislators are involved, where all voices are heard and where all
constituencies are represented–is a much more thorough, laborious and
time-consuming exercise. But that is what major decisions require in a
representative republic: thorough, laborious and time-consuming
Many centuries of parliamentary practice have evolved a process for group
decision-making that works very well when it is followed. It allows for the
development of public policy through multiple debates and amendments and
votes. It preserves the checks and balances, the separation of powers and
the public scrutiny that experience has taught us are necessary whenever
when mere mortals are spending other people’s money.
In his first State of the State address, Governor Schwarzenegger recognized
that there is something fundamentally wrong with a system that produces
chronically late and unbalanced spending plans, and there are many reforms
that would help. But the most obvious one is to restore the constitutional
process that had served the state so well for so long.