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Let lawmakers – not judges – write the budget

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on March 31, 2011 at 7:25 pm |
April 1, 2011 10:26 am

This editorial will appear in Friday’s print edition.

Lawmakers will have a hard enough time carving $5 billion out of state spending this year without the courts second-guessing what they can cut and what they can’t.

One federal judge, Marsha Pechman, has countermanded the Legislature’s decision to stop funding the Food Assistance Program for Legal Immigrants. Lawmakers had expected to save $60 million over the next biennium by ending the program, which helps pay the grocery bills of some needy immigrants who aren’t eligible for food stamps.

Responding to a class action lawsuit on behalf of those immigrants, Pechman decided that the Legislature was probably violating the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. The theory: Because the state helps fund aid for immigrants who are eligible for the federal program, it must do the same for immigrants who aren’t. State attorneys have appealed to the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

This is a No Good Deed Goes Unpunished ruling. Expanding the assistance to non-eligible immigrants was purely discretionary on the part of the state, and no federal money was involved. It now turns out – if Pechman’s logic is upheld – that lawmakers can choose to extend help but can’t choose to withdraw it when they run out of revenues.

The fundamental issue here is not about legal immigrants. It’s about judges usurping legislative prerogatives and pushing the Equal Protection Clause beyond its natural limits.

The Legislature must whack billions out of existing state programs; that is a given. There is no way it can be done without hurting people; it’s just a question of who gets hurt and how much.

The allocation of pain on a statewide scale is an extremely complex process; it involves weighing hundreds of different public priorities against each other. Legislatures were created to make decisions like these; courts were not. When a federal court decides to exempt an assistance program from lawmakers’ constitutional budget-writing authority, other human services that don’t enjoy the judge’s solicitude will suffer accordingly. That might be called unequal protection.

Pechman’s injunction would make sense if the state were giving different treatment to different clients who all met the eligibility requirements of a particular program. But that’s not what’s going on here: She is demanding the perpetuation of an entirely different program to ensure a grand uniformity of benefits.

But there’s no such thing as a perfectly uniform safety net. The state funds all-day kindergarten for some poor children but not others, simply because it doesn’t have enough money. It provides more assistance for some people with disabilities than for others. Many of its services are more accessible to needy people in cities than to equally needy people in rural areas.

Heaven help us if judges take it upon themselves to iron out every wrinkle of inequality in the system; it can’t be done. Nor can lawmakers write a budget on any rational basis with courts jumping into the statehouse on behalf of one or another constituency, undoing decisions that constitutionally belong to the legislative branch.

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