A legislative maneuver that gave Gov. Jerry Brown's tax measure top billing on the November ballot was unconstitutional, a state appeals court ruled Friday.
Although the court's decision has no impact on the tax measure, which was approved by voters, it could restrict how lawmakers handle budget legislation in the future.
Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. President Jon Coupal, who filed the lawsuit, said the case revealed "an abuse and manipulation of the political process."
The situation involves a complicated web of laws for the state's annual process for assembling the budget.
Every budget involves multiple pieces of legislation known as "trailer bills" because they're passed after the primary budget bill has been approved by the Legislature. They start out as blank "spot bills" and are later filled in with details in the final days of negotiations.
Last year, Democratic lawmakers used one of the trailer bills to ensure Brown's tax proposal was listed first on the ballot, which political observers say can increase a measure's chance of passing. Lawmakers claimed this legislation was related to the budget and should go into effect before the election.
If the legislation was not part of the budget, it would have required a two-thirds vote to take effect immediately, allowing Republicans to block the bill.
State law "does not allow the Legislature to name empty spot bills in the budget bill and only after the budget bill is passed to fill those placeholders with content as urgency legislation," the judges wrote in their decision.
Phillip Ung, a policy advocate at California Common Cause, said the court's ruling will help make the budget process more transparent. Trailer bills will need to include some details when the primary budget bill is passed in order to be considered budget legislation and get approved with a simple majority vote.
"It’s not the victory I think voters have been waiting for," Ung said. "But it moves the dial of transparency more toward voters than toward legislative secrecy.”
Mark Hedlund, a spokesman for the Senate leader, said "the Legislature acted in good faith" when it approved trailer bills last year. He said the decision is still being reviewed and may be appealed.
A spokesman for the governor, Gil Duran, declined to comment.
-- Chris Megerian in Sacramento
Photo: The California Assembly floor in 2008. Credit: Los Angeles Times