SACRAMENTO — California lawmakers violated the state Constitution when they passed a bill that gave Gov. Jerry Brown's tax initiative top billing on the November ballot, a state appeals court ruled Friday.
The 3rd District Court of Appeal in Sacramento said lawmakers were wrong to sidestep a two-thirds vote requirement to immediately enact AB 1499 last year. The bill was passed on a majority vote by Democrats last June and moved the governor's measure ahead of other initiatives on the November ballot because it involved a constitutional amendment.
Democrats appropriated $1,000 to the secretary of state for expenses. They said because the so-called spot bill was related to the budget, it could be passed on a simple majority vote and enacted ahead of the election.
Had it not been enacted as urgency legislation, the law would not have taken effect until the new year — after the election.
Republicans were unsuccessful in trying to stop the bill from taking effect before voters approved Proposition 30.
The appeals court said that while the lawsuit is moot, lawmakers can't make similar maneuvers in the future.
"We are pleased the court has confirmed that the Legislature cannot simply add content to an empty 'spot bill' as a means to avoid the two-thirds vote requirement," said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, the anti-tax group that filed the lawsuit.
Both Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, were reviewing the decision with their attorneys, their offices said.
"The Legislature acted in good faith upon our interpretation of the law regarding spot bills as trailer bills," said Steinberg spokesman Mark Hedlund. "We're continuing to study the court's decision and have yet to make a final decision on whether or not the Legislature will appeal the ruling."
The court wrote that when voters lowered the threshold for passing state budgets to a simple majority vote under Proposition 25 in 2010, they restricted the Legislature's power to passing the budget and budget-related bills.
In this case, the problem was that AB1499 was "nothing but a number, a placeholder, an empty vessel at the time the budget bill was passed," the court wrote.
The ruling could have implications for lawmakers in the future because spot bills are commonly used in the budget process.
The court said "the bills must not only be related to the budget bill, but they must be identified at the time the budget bill is passed by the Legislature."