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Rich Pedroncelli, Associated Press
State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, left, discusses the lawsuit he and Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, center, filed against state Controller John Chiang over last year's state budget, during a Capitol news conference in Sacramento, Calif., Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2012. The Legislative leaders are suing the controller for blocking lawmakers paychecks when he decided they had not approved a balance budget by the June 15th deadline. Both Perez and Steinberg say they don't want their money back, but they do want the courts to rule that Controller Chiang violated the constitutional separation of powers when he with held lawmakers pay. At right is retired appellate California Appellate Court Judge Arthur Scotland who is representing Perez and Steinberg.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The Legislature's Democratic leaders filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the state controller for blocking lawmakers' pay last year after deciding they had failed to meet their constitutional deadline for passing a balanced budget.

Assembly Speaker John Perez and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said they are not seeking back pay, but rather want the courts to clarify whether Controller John Chiang overstepped his constitutional authority when he withheld lawmakers' pay.

"This is fundamentally an issue of separation of powers," Perez, D-Los Angeles, said at a Capitol news conference.

Chiang, also a Democrat, acted under Proposition 25, an initiative approved by voters in 2010. He said he reviewed the budget passed by the Democratic majority and determined it was not balanced. The lawsuit filed in Sacramento County Superior Court says it was and that Chiang overstepped his authority.

He issued a statement after the Democrats' news conference saying he welcomes the court's review.

"The issue before us is not the role of my office, but how to enact the will of the voters," Chiang said. "While nothing in the Constitution gives me the authority to judge the honesty, legitimacy or viability of a budget, it does clearly restrict my authority to issue pay to Legislators when they fail to enact a balanced budget by the constitutional deadline of June 15."

Rank-and-file lawmakers have a base annual salary of $95,291 but can make about $30,000 more through per diem payments. They lost an average of $4,800 in salary and per diem pay before they passed a budget that Chiang said was balanced.

Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said legislative leaders are not picking a fight with Chiang or with Gov. Jerry Brown, a fellow Democrat who had vetoed the Legislature's budget because it contained billions of dollars in borrowing and questionable budgetary maneuvers. But he said they have a responsibility to defend the Legislature's independence.

"Neither the governor nor any member of the executive branch may brandish the threat of withholding legislative pay because they disagree with the decisions made by the legislative branch," Steinberg said. "Imagine the mischief five years from now or 10 years from now if a controller is from a different political party than the majority party and wants to leverage the budget for his or her own partisan or political purposes."

Under Proposition 25, Democrats could pass the budget with their simple majority, but Republicans had balked at providing the two-thirds majority needed to raise taxes.

Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, was not consulted about the lawsuit, said a spokesman, Bill Bird. Perez informed Assembly Minority Leader Connie Conway, R-Tulare, said her spokeswoman, Sabrina Lockhart.

"She hasn't weighed in on it beyond the fact that she's aware of it being filed," Lockhart said.