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State Senate leader says he'll sue Schwarzenegger over budget cuts

August 7, 2009 |  2:04 pm

State Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) said today that he will file a lawsuit against Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to challenge his use of line-item vetoes last month to make nearly $500 million in spending cuts to the state budget.

Steinberg said he will file the lawsuit as an individual in San Francisco County Superior Court early next week and will tap political funds to pay for the legal challenge.

“We elected a governor, not an emperor,” Steinberg said at a Capitol news conference. “In making these line-item vetoes the governor forced punishing cuts on children, the disabled and patients that he couldn’t win fairly at the bargaining table. And in doing so, he overstepped his constitutional authority.”

The announcement was made just two days after the Legislature’s legal counsel issued an opinion arguing that Schwarzenegger exceeded his constitutional powers by imposing the cuts to health, welfare and other programs.

Democratic leaders contended that the cuts should have been off-limits to the governor's blue pencil because they had been funded under a February budget agreement. That budget fell out of balance as state revenue plummeted.

The Legislature sent the governor a budget fix July 24 that left the state in deficit, without a reserve, forcing the governor to find more cuts, said Aaron McLear, a spokesman for the governor.

"The governor’s constitutional authority to veto appropriations is unquestioned and will be upheld by the courts," McLear said.

"While Democrats are focused on a protracted legal battle to dig the state back into deficit, the governor will continue to focus on moving our state forward and getting Californians back to work.”

Steinberg said he is open to having the governor propose an alternative to the budget cuts to avoid a legal showdown. The Senate leader added that he welcomes other Democratic lawmakers to join the case.

"I am supportive of this action," said Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles). "This is a constitutional question. People are talking about holding a constitutional convention, but what’s the use of having a constitutional convention if people are not going to follow the constitution?"

The lawsuit over $500 million in cuts follows the decision by Democrats to cut billions more from health, welfare and education programs backed by their key constituencies.

Republican political consultant Allan Hoffenblum said the lawsuit is not unexpected because "they need to appease the powerful base of the Democratic Party, to show that they have done everything they can."

Steinberg is not the first elected Democrat to battle with Schwarzenegger in court this year. State Controller John Chiang and other statewide officials argued unsuccessfully in Superior Court in March that the governor did not have power to furlough their employees.

The lawsuit also has political implications, said consultant Harvey Englander, who has worked on many California campaigns.

"I think it’s important for Steinberg politically to show strong leadership because some people have questioned how strong he was," Englander said.

-- Patrick McGreevy, in Sacramento