Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Monday, January 13, 2003


Page 1


Governor’s Budget Plan Cuts From Trial Courts, Increases Fees




SACRAMENTO (CAPITOL)—Gov. Gray Davis on Friday unveiled a $96 billion state budget proposal for the next fiscal year which includes major cuts in trial court funding and substantial increases in court filing fees.

“Virtually every program in the state has been reduced,” Davis told reporters at a press conference in the state Capitol. He said his budget proposal cuts $20 billion from previously authorized spending for the 2003-04 fiscal year.

The trial court reductions, many of which were foreshadowed by California Chief Justice Ronald George during a December press briefing, include an additional $36 million from the remaining six months of the current state budget and $116 million from the 2003-04 budget, to be allocated statewide by the Judicial Council.

Altogether, the judicial branch would face a cut of nearly $400 million over the next two years. Cuts would be even greater if the Legislature does not approve a wide-ranging program of cost restructuring among the state and local governments.

Two changes expected to draw union opposition would save nearly $59 million by allowing the use of electronic court reporting and the flexibility to contract with “various sworn law enforcement agencies” to provide court security.

New Security Fee

The governor’s plan also calls for increases in several court filing fees. A new court security fee would add $20 per court filing, a trial motion fee would add $10 to the cost of filing a motion and additional, unspecified fee increases would raise $31 million for the courts. The appellate filing fee would increase 238 percent—from $265 to $630—on July 1 to raise $2.1 million.

Of the new tax revenue, $300 million would go to the judicial branch for improving court security statewide. Historically, Los Angeles County, with the largest trial court system, has received about one-third of such statewide allocations.

The court funding changes are part of a proposed $8.2 billion realignment in state and local responsibilities.

Much of the budget package depends on broad legislative changes. For example, laws currently require courts to use the county sheriff for courthouse security. Davis’ proposal contemplates competitive bidding among state, county and municipal agencies for court security contracts. Responsibility for security would be transferred back to counties, who were relieved of the duty several years ago when the state took over trial court funding. The counties would get that money from new taxes.

‘Very Tough’

William Vickrey, administrative director of the courts, called the budget proposal “very tough” because of the level of reductions, the complex policy changes contemplated in restructuring funding responsibilities, and “the coordination and cooperation required to get the appropriate pieces of legislation” on which the budget depends.

A great deal of cooperation would be required from employee unions. The budget proposal leaves out any provision for paying the negotiated salary increases with court employees in many counties under multiyear collective bargaining agreements.

Vickrey noted that there is very little discretion over current court budgets. In the appellate courts, for example, 73 percent of the budget goes to constitutionally required appointed criminal defense counsel, justices’ salaries courthouse rent, the Habeas Corpus Resource Center and central criminal staff.

In the trial courts, close to 70 percent of the budgets, including judicial salaries, constitutionally required criminal expenditures, jury services and revenue-producing traffic court, is out of reach.

Vickrey said that left courts with decisions on reducing hours, voluntary furloughs, and hiring freezes.

“I don’t think there is any way to avoid [cuts in] the level of services that may be felt,” Vickrey said.

Also facing the ax locally could be technology improvements, self-help centers, and assistance to pro pers, he said, leaving courts to grapple with “hope we avoid backsliding in terms of the level and uniformity of justice from county to county in California,” Vickrey said.

The courts’ administrative director said he believed the judicial branched “stepped forward very early” to identify reductions to help resolve the budget dilemma. The governor’s proposal has “gone beyond what I feel was appropriate for the judicial branch,” he said.

As part of the realignment, Davis proposed a 1 percent increase in the state sales tax, a $1.10 per pack increase in cigarette taxes and an income tax increase on individuals who bring in more than $130,000 a year and couples with combined income of $260,000 or more. The governor would create two new upper-income tax brackets of 10 percent and 11 percent.

Together, the tax increases would raise $8.3 billion, the governor estimated. Davis said all the tax increases would go to local governments, mitigating some of the cuts in state funding.

Davis also proposed saving $3 million by eliminating the state’s Witness Protection Program. Attorney General Bill Lockyer said he will try to protect the program from being eliminated.

“Witness protection is key in the prosecution of gang homicides and cuts in this program will have a severe and disproportionate impact on communities suffering a marked increase in gang homicide,” Lockyer said in a written statement.

“All the choices before me were hard, but they had to be made in order to balance the books,” Davis said.

The spending plan, however, is not balanced. According to charts distributed by the governor, the plan includes total spending of $96.4 billion and estimated revenue of $96.05 billion—a deficit of nearly $400 million.

The difference could be smaller if the economy improves and taxes flow in at higher rates than expected, or could be significantly larger if the budget’s revenue assumptions aren’t met.

Assumptions include a new $1.5 billion revenue stream from revenue-sharing agreements with Indian casinos. Department of Finance Director Tim Gage said the state will attempt to negotiate compacts with tribes to secure 25 percent of their gambling revenue. Similar agreements have been reached in Connecticut and New York, he said.

The finance director, who is leaving the Davis administration this month, did not specify what the state would offer the tribes to secure their agreement to such a plan. It is believed that incentives could include allowing the casinos to install more slot machines and card tables.

The Democratic governor said the first budget of his second term in office will bridge a gap between previously authorized spending and lower-than-anticipated revenues. The governor has pegged that “spending gap” at $34.6 billion, while the nonpartisan legislative analyst puts it at $21.1 billion.

Some Republicans have questioned whether Davis is inflating the scope of the budget problem in order to justify tax increases. The Senate Republican Caucus Web site includes a bulletin which pegs the shortfall at $10.3 billion—a figure calculated by taking the legislative analyst’s estimate, subtracting $2 billion for cuts proposed by Davis in December, and freezing the budget at that level for the 2003-04 fiscal year.

The estimates by the governor and legislative analyst do not assume the state will freeze spending, but instead use “current service level” spending as a benchmark.

With court funding accounting for just 1.9 percent of the state’s budget, the governor and lawmakers have been focusing on larger programs including education, welfare and prison spending. K-12 education alone accounts for nearly 44 percent of the state budget, or $27.4 billion.

The budget plan now goes to the Legislature, which has a constitutional deadline of June 15 for sending a budget bill back to the governor. The state constitution sets a July 1 deadline—the beginning of the next fiscal year — for the governor to sign a budget into law. The governor and lawmakers are not penalized for missing these deadlines.


Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company