In a lawsuit filed in San Francisco Superior Court, California Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg sued Governor Schwarzenegger for violating the California Constitution in his recent line-item vetoes to the July, 2009 budget revision bill.

The suit, known as “Steinberg v. Schwarzenegger,” seeks no monetary damages from the Governor but does request a reversal of the line-item vetoes to reinstate monies taken from programs in health care, social services, domestic violence shelters and state parks.

“We elected a governor, not an emperor,” Steinberg said in his August 7, 2009 press conference to announce the lawsuit. “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.”

“We feel the Governor is challenging the Constitution; it’s a separation of powers issue,” said Robin B. Johansen, Esq., of Remcho, Johansen & Purcell, the law firm hired by Steinberg to prepare the lawsuit and provide legal counsel through its conclusion.

“We are challenging much of what the Governor did in his vetoes, but not all of it,” she said. “Much of what he did, we feel, oversteps his line-item veto authority.”

Johansen said the Governor’s authority to exercise the line-item veto only applies to appropriations. “The Constitution says that he can reduce or eliminate a particular item of appropriation within a bill, but the item of appropriation is the one that was passed back in February . . . so he doesn’t get a second bite at the apple.”

“We haven’t asked for a Temporary Restraining Order. We are going to seek a very quick briefing schedule and then just to try to get this thing resolved as quickly as possible.”

She said more plaintiffs may be added to the lawsuit. “There are a lot of people who are interested in this, so we’re talking to them and seeing whether they want to join, but we thought it was important to get this on file so we can get a quick resolution.”

The lawsuit follows weeks of legislative debate over the legality of Governor Schwarzenegger’s line-item vetoes that cut $489 million in funding from many health and social services programs.

Two Assembly Democrats — Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) and John Perez (D-Los Angeles) — hired independent legal counsel to research whether the Governor’s line-item vetoes represented a valid use of his Constitutional authority.

Both the Kaufman Legal Group (the private Los Angeles law firm retained by Perez) and the non-partisan Legislative Counsel Bureau (hired by Bass) concluded the Governor had exceeded his powers with the line-item vetoes; the Kaufman Legal Group’s July 29, 2009 memorandum called the line item vetoes “an unconstitutional legal act;” the Legislative Counsel Bureau’s August 5, 2009 opinion cited violations of Article IV, Section 10 of the Constitution.

“It’s a question of whether the Legislature gets to decide how to deal with the deficit and make the necessary cuts and forward a bill to the Governor that he could either veto or not,” said Johansen. “We’re not challenging his right to veto. But he cannot exercise his line-item vetoes to change that bill the way he has because the reductions that the Legislature made are not appropriations, and therefore they’re not subject to the line-item veto.”

“It’s important that the Legislature be allowed to decide how big these cuts have to be in order to deal with the crisis and not have the Governor go ahead and make them even deeper,” she said.

Alicia Trost, press secretary to Senator Steinberg, said the Senator’s use of his campaign funds to finance the lawsuit is legal under Government Code Section 89514 which allows legal fees directly related to the Senator’s officeholder status and the clear governmental purpose of the legal action.

“From a county perspective, we don’t anticipate a quick resolution to the lawsuit,” said Robyn Truitt Drivon, county counsel and interim chief administrator for Yolo County.

Pat Leary, assistant county administrator for Yolo County, doesn’t believe the lawsuit will change Yolo County’s budget priorities or program funding.

“We’re in the same place we were, having to make reductions based on the Governor’s vetoes and the Legislature’s actions,” she said.

While Leary acknowledged the lawsuit may offer some long-term benefit if funding is restored, counties must cope with the daily reality of budget deficits. “In the short term of meeting our requirements to provide services day after day, it’s nice to have somebody on our side,” she said. “But until this is resolved, it won’t pay the bills.”

“This is not something the County is going to take a position on,” said David Wert, public information officer for the County of San Bernardino. “Some of the cuts were directed at counties, but the county does not have any question as to whether or not the Governor had the authority to do that.”

Wert said the blue-penciled cuts aren’t really going to have a dramatic impact on his county’s programs.

“The County of San Bernardino has been preparing for this for quite some time, and as a result the county is not going to have to lay off any employees. We’ve been gradually scaling back on those programs because we knew this was coming.”

Ryan Alsop, assistant chief executive officer for Los Angeles County, said counties all over California are carefully monitoring the Governor’s line-item vetoes, but Los Angeles County has no plans at this time to join the lawsuit.

“So we’re not a fan of any of it, particularly those vetoes, and any decision to sue the State or sue the Governor is going to be made by the Board of Supervisors, and they’ve not made that decision yet.”

Of particular concern to Alsop is loss of funding for critical health services. “We’re already dealing with a $35 million reduction in AIDS programs, AIDS prevention and early intervention,” he said.

“Los Angeles County has had significant funding reductions; $83.1 million is the additional impact to Los Angeles County due to the Governor’s vetoes, for a total of $272 million in funding reductions that have a significant impact on county-delivered health and human service programs.”

A recent survey by the L.A. County Department of Public Health predicted a loss of 22-30 positions, he said, along with a $13.5 million loss to the county and agencies it partners with to provide services.

“You have to come up with the money somehow for the reductions,” said Alsop. “Just because you return money in one spot doesn’t mean you take care of the problem.”