Courts as State Budget Spoiler

Governors are accountable not only to the people, but to the courts.

Sometimes we get so caught up in the political ping pong between the governor and state legislature that we forget the role courts play in the budget process. The discussion is anything but academic.

And by now, you'd think that state policy makers would have enough of a handle on the process to know better.

Last week, a federal court issued an order preventing the state from reducing payments to recipients of In-Home Supportive Services by $100 million for the remainder of the current fiscal year.

The funds go to the disabled, low-income and blind people. If the order is upheld, the state will be on the hook for another $200 million annually.

Governor Jerry Brown had ordered the reduction as part of the state's mid-year one billion dollar budget retrenchment due to the well-publicized revenue shortfall.

But in response to a law suit over the change, a federal judge ruled that the cuts were in violation of federal laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and Social Security Act.

Combined, court rulings have had a serious impact on the current state budget. The California Department of Finance estimates that over the past year court orders and the lack of federal approval for other programmatic cuts have cost the state $2 billion.

Now we're talking real money.

Most instructive about these rulings is that they are not new. Routinely, California policy makers adjust social services payments downward, only to see the courts toss those cuts back in their faces.

During the Schwarzenegger years, the Republican governor operated much like Brown. He often attempted to balance the budget through cuts that the courts also rejected.

During his last three years of office, federal courts rejected $4.5 billion in cuts to various health and welfare programs signed in to "law" by Schwarzenegger because the new payment schedules also violated federal laws.

Practitioners and academics alike can debate the merits of whether the federal government should intervene in these state decisions, but such a discussion, while potentially enlightening, misses the point:

The track record is clear. If state leaders want to pass an honest budget, they should do so in a manner that avoids "give backs" down the road.

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