Burgeoning Legal Battle Over What an 'Appropriation' Is Could Mean Millions For San Francisco

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The most unkindest cut of all?
A decade ago, Bill Clinton was roundly excoriated for answering a question from Paula Jones' lawyer with the memorable non-answer, "That depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is."

Clinton's perfidy led to eight years of President George W. Bush and Jones cashing her celebrity chit to appear on Celebrity Boxing vs. Tonya Harding. Both of these events had a huge impact on the nation. 

Now another seemingly arcane legal definition could add or subtract millions from the city budget. It all depends on what the meaning of "appropriation" is.

The battle stems from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's last-minute blue-pen line-item vetoes before signing the state budget last month, which hacked $487.2 million out of the state budget. This included significant state funds yanked away from San Francisco public health and human services programs. Our many calls to the city controller's office to determine exactly how much the city is out were not returned, but glancing over the controller's mid-week assessment of how deep a hole the city is in, it appears at least several million dollars were swiped away via the line-item vetoes. Deputy City Controller Monique Zmuda told us earlier this week that Schwarzenegger's late cuts were the only unpleasant budget eventualities the city hadn't fully anticipated.  

Will San Francisco -- and other cities -- get that money back? Perhaps. Diane Boyer-Vine, the state's legislative counsel -- basically the lawyer for the legislature -- on Wednesday issued this opinion stating she believes Schwarzenegger's vetoes to be unconstitutional.

Here's her rationale put as simply as we can do it. An "appropriation" is, essentially, the authorization of taking some money from the treasury, and spending no more than the agreed-upon amount on a specific purpose. And when the legislature sends the governor a bill with appropriations in it, he has three options: Sign it, veto it, or reduce the appropriation.

Boyer-Vine, however, believes that AB 4X1 -- last month's budget revision bill -- didn't have any "appropriations" in it. It simply reduced and altered the appropriations approved when the budget originally passed in February; no money was being taken from the treasury. Yet Schwarzenegger's line-item vetoes cut out items entirely -- which Boyer-Vine believes he was not entitled to do. If he wanted to nix appropriations, he should have done it in February.

Yet while Boyer-Vine and others believe the governor is only entitled to veto new spending, the governor and his people feel they're within the law. And the battle commences.  

When asked what might come next, Assemblyman Tom Ammiano said things will be more clear on Aug. 17 when the legislature comes out of its recess. Top state Democrats have said that they won't be putting this matter before a judge, but health or public service agencies hurt by the cuts are entitled to do so -- making a lawsuit a mathematical certainty. And getting that $487.2 million back may turn out to be a Democratic obsession.

"We're going to pursue it until we win this one," said Ammiano. Come Aug. 17, "I think [Democrats] will say 'We do not accept these cuts, we are moving forward.' I think what we'll have here is a chess game. But I don't see the legislature, even with the Republican component, backing away from the legislative counsel's advice."

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