Tuesday, May 15, 2012
Courts Face More Cuts as Shortfall Drives Revised Budget Plan
From Staff and Wire Service Reports
California courts face $544 million in new cuts under the revised budget plan released yesterday by Gov. Jerry Brown.
That figure, which Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye pronounced as “devastating and disheartening” includes $300 million in onetime reductions that would come from trial court reserves, $240 million to be gained by delaying courthouse construction projects, and $4 million in increased costs to appellate court, Habeas Corpus Resource Center, and Administrative Office of the Courts employees. Those workers will have their pension contributions increased from five percent to eight percent, “consistent with other state employees,” the chief justice explained in an e-mail to judicial officers and court administrators, a copy of which was obtained by the MetNews.
Those cuts are part of the sweeping proposal to save more than $8 billion throughout state government following the weekend disclosure that the state’s revenue shortfall for the 2012-2013 fiscal year would be far greater than the $9.2 billion projected in January. Brown and the Department of Finance yesterday pegged the number at $15.7 billion, citing a slower-than-expected economic recovery.
More Cuts May Come
The governor is seeking to cut $16.7 billion from the budget, including a $1 billion reserve. But more than $6 billion in additional cuts would be triggered if the governor’s tax proposal isn’t passed by voters in November, according to a summary released yesterday by the department. The department had previously indicated that $125 million of the triggered cuts would come from the judicial branch.
The chief justice said she would convene an emergency meeting of the Judicial Council this Thursday to address the cuts, and that state Finance Director Ana Motosantos “will present information on the budget so we can analyze what his means for the branch and how we can go forward together in preventing the harms these cuts will bring to California’s residents.”
The chief justice also explained:
“Until we see the budget trailer bill language—which still has not been drafted—we do not know how the reductions will be accomplished for the trial courts,” she said.
The revised budget proposal drew a sharp reaction from others in the bench and bar. State Bar President Jon Streeter said the cuts were “beyond unsustainable,” while Fourth District Court of Appeal Justice Douglas Miller, who chairs the Judicial Council Executive and Planning Committee, said the cuts “will be difficult, if not impossible, for the branch to absorb.”
Los Angeles attorney Paul R. Kiesel, co-chair of the Open Courts Coalition, said in a statement:
“The Governor’s massive cuts to our state court budget threaten to shut the lights out on hundreds of courtrooms, locking out Californians from our justice system and eliminating the safest place for citizens to resolve their disputes.”
The Alliance of California Judges issued a statement saying “the day of reckoning has come to the Judiciary,” and said the courts faced “not only a budget crisis, but a crisis of confidence” due to “[y]ears of mismanagement and misplaced priorities by the Judicial Council and the Administrative Office of the Courts.”
The alliance said:
“Over half a billion dollars wasted on a failed computer project, lavish salaries, pension spikes and retroactive pay raises for San Francisco bureaucrats, exorbitant construction and building maintenance programs and an unwillingness to rein in the excesses of the AOC will cause local courts to cut essential courtroom staff and hours of operations. All of this could have been avoided had our leaders rejected staff recommendations to raid legislatively appropriated local court funds for their pet projects.”
The alliance took the occasion to again call for passage of the court decentralization bill, AB 1208, and said that in the long term, reform must include “democratization” of the Judicial Council.
In explaining his proposal to reporters in Sacramento yesterday, Brown made another pitch for his tax-hike initiative that he said would send more money to public schools if voters approve it in November.
The governor said:
“I said at the beginning when I ran for this job that it has taken a long time, more than a decade, to get into this mess. We’re not going to get out of it in a year — or even two years. But we’re getting there. We’re making real progress.”
The revised shortfall for the fiscal year that starts July 1 is roughly 17 percent of California’s $91 billion general fund, the state’s main checkbook for paying day-to-day operations. Brown said the sagging economic recovery and court judgments that prevented him from making cuts to programs such as Medi-Cal and In-Home Supportive Services led to the widening budget gap.
The anticipated deficit for the coming fiscal year marks a continuation of budget problems in the nation’s most populous state, where the unemployment rate and home foreclosures are among the worst in the country.
The Legislature had cut tens of billions of dollars from schools, social services, higher education, courts and health care programs for the poor since the recession began in late 2007.
The higher education cuts in particular have sparked demonstrations at regents’ meetings and on college campuses throughout the state.
The Democratic governor said the size of the deficit makes it virtually impossible to balance the budget with spending cuts alone, so his budget balances the cuts with the revenue he anticipates if voters approve his proposal to increase the statewide sales tax by a quarter cent and boost income taxes on those who make more than $250,000 a year. Both tax increases would be temporary.
Brown’s budget proposes $8.3 billion in cuts, $5.9 billion from the tax increases and $2.5 billion in a variety of other solutions.
If voters reject his tax initiative, Brown is proposing an automatic cut of $5.5 billion to K-12 schools and $250 million each to the California State University and University of California systems.
By comparison, public schools would see a 16 percent increase in funding if voters pass Brown’s initiative.
Brown called his latest budget plan “modest, fair and temporary.” The income tax hikes on the wealthy would be in effect for seven years, while the quarter-cent sales tax hike would remain for four years if voters approve.
In exchange, the governor is proposing a balanced approach that incorporates a wide range of cuts, from prison spending to child care for mothers trying to get off welfare.
His plan to send lower-level offenders to county jails instead of state prison will save $1 billion in prison spending in the coming year, while his tax initiative would constitutionally guarantee that some of the new revenue flows to counties to help them pay for that realignment.
Brown said his administration will work with state employee unions to achieve the five percent savings, either through a straight pay cut or reduced work hours. He issued a detailed plan for public employee pension reform earlier this year, but his proposal has not gained much traction in the Legislature, which is controlled by Democrats.
Attorney General Kamala Harris, like Brown a Democrat, late yesterday criticized a portion of the plan that would divert $410 million that the attorney general secured from five major lending institutions as the state’s share of a settlement regarding allegedly illegal home mortgage practic es.
“While the state is undeniably facing a difficult budget gap, these funds should be used to help Californians stay in their homes,” Harris said in a statement. “I plan to work with the Governor and Legislature toward a balanced budget that honors our obligations to California’s homeowners.”
Copyright 2012, Metropolitan News Company