Never let it be said that state legislators are all that different from the rest of us.
Sure, they have some perks that many Californians will never enjoy, like all-expenses-paid junkets and a generous per diem. And they often spend their evenings watching strangers shower money upon them in the form of campaign contributions.
But as Wednesday's budget votes demonstrate, they – like the rest of us – respond to incentives.
Rare are the times when California's budget is passed before the start of the fiscal year, July 1 (see chart below). But even rarer are the years in which the Legislature does its part, passing a budget by the constitutionally mandated deadline of June 15.
Number of days after July 1 that budget was signed
This year, however – faced with the prospect of seeing their legislative salaries withheld by State Controller John Chiang and emboldened by a new authority to pass a budget with a majority, rather than two-thirds, vote – the Legislature passed its budget bills just in the nick of time.
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Granted, this year's budget is far from complete. Tax provisions are likely to be challenged in court, and it is laden with the same accounting gimmicks that Gov. Jerry Brown promised to avoid during his campaign. Brown is expected to continue negotiating with Republicans in the coming weeks before he signs the budget into law.
But looking back at history, the effect of the threatened salary withholding and majority vote powers are clearly significant. Lawmakers have managed to approve a budget before the start of the following fiscal year just four times in at least the last 19 years, according to records from the Legislative Analyst's Office.
And no other factor, from the partisan composition of the Legislature to the party of the sitting governor or the size of the budget deficit (or surplus), has consistently pushed lawmakers to pass a budget on time, state data show.
The partisan composition of the Legislature has had little effect at all, statistically speaking. Between 1995 and 1998, when the majority party in the Assembly held single-digit majorities in seats, the budget was an average of 35 days late – relatively speedy by recent standards.
But since 1999, when Democrats have had a consistent double-digit advantage in seats, the budget also has averaged 35 days overdue. And last year, when they had their widest majority in years, the budget came in a record 100 days late.
Of course, last year, lawmakers were also dealing with a $19 billion budget deficit, which made for contentious and difficult negotiations. And indeed, the presence of budget deficits seems to have had some effect on the process since at least 2002.
According to Department of Finance data [PDF], in years in which the state ran surpluses, budgets were signed an average of 28 days late, compared with 43 days in the years the state ran deficits (according to the department's definition of surplus and deficit). But that number is also skewed a bit by last year's 100-day marathon, so the actual effect is likely much less.
The other wildcard last year was Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who presided over several of the longest budget seasons in recent memory. During his two terms in office, Schwarzenegger's budgets were signed an average of 43 days overdue, though he did preside over one on-time budget in 2006.
Gov. Gray Davis, whose Democratic Party also controlled the Legislature during his term, clocked in at an average of 23 days late between 1999 and his recall in 2003. His first two budgets in 1999 and 2000 were signed on time. Gov. Pete Wilson's budgets also arrived chronically late, though not as late as Schwarzenegger's. He averaged 29 days late from 1992 to 1999.