Wednesday, December 11, 2002
George Details Budget Cuts That May Be in Store for Courts
By DAVID KLINE
SACRAMENTO (CAPITOL)—There are no sacred cows when it comes to looking for potential money-saving cuts in the judicial branch, California Chief Justice Ronald George said yesterday.
Speaking after his annual holiday reception for the media, George told the MetNews that he and the California Judicial Council will “put out a menu of things” to give the Legislature and governor options as they look for ways to bridge a budget shortfall the nonpartisan legislative analyst has described as at least $21 billion.
“We’re taking every step we can to reduce or defer expenditures,” George said, indicating the courts already have reduced travel expenses and are leaving vacancies unfilled wherever possible.
He said California’s courts are not alone, because “virtually every state is in crisis mode.”
On Friday, Gov. Gray Davis proposed cuts totaling $10.2 billion from the current budget, including $10 million in unallocated reductions from judicial branch operations, and $50 million from the state’s funding for the trial courts.
Davis also announced that in his budget for the 2003-04 fiscal year, which he plans to release in January, he will propose additional cuts of $29 million from judiciary operations and $200 million from the trial court budget. The Judicial Council would be responsible for deciding how the cuts would impact individual courts, under the governor’s proposal.
George said the courts could save approximately $12 million by using private companies rather than county sheriffs’ deputies to perform security duties at courthouse entrances.
“I think we spend something close to $50 million on perimeter security, and that’s the kind of thing that perhaps we could have performed by well-trained security guards,” George said.
He also suggested saving money on transcripts by allowing more electronic transcripts which would not have to be purchased by the page from court reporters.
The chief justice acknowledged that the proposals will be controversial with the unions representing deputies and court reporters.
“We’re looking at things—some of them may encounter political resistance,” he said.
Another idea is to convert existing court commissioner positions into trial court judgeships. George said doing so would be a “relatively cheap way” of creating more judgeships. The Judicial Council, which will consider the proposal at its meeting Friday, estimates that the state needs at least 50 new trial court judges to keep up with demand.
George said other options might include encouraging court employees to take unpaid work furloughs and even considering closing the courts on Fridays.
“We cannot actually be very specific at this point, because the governor’s announcement on Friday is just the opening round in what’s going to be a lengthy process,” George said.
The chief justice noted that legislative leaders have indicated they may pursue large tax increases that might allow the judicial branch to escape with fewer cuts. If tax increases are approved, he said, “It’s a very different picture” than the governor’s proposal last week.
Much of the court’s budget cannot be changed without new laws, George said. For example, he noted that judges’ salaries cannot be reduced mid-term, payment rates for attorneys handling capital cases cannot be adjusted without a change in law, and the judiciary pays rent to the state for many of its offices.
Of the spending that is discretionary, he said, much relates to protecting the public safety and cannot be cut without major risks.
George said spending on the courts in past years has “vastly improved the system” for the public, and he credited the state’s assumption of trial court funding—taking over the expense from the counties—with reducing the likelihood that courts in small counties will be closed as the budget problems continue.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company