Monday, April 16, 2012
LAO Opposes Governor’s Proposal on Court Budget Allocations
Legislative Watchdog Says Judicial Council Should Not Have Unlimited Authority to Determine Cuts
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The Judicial Council should not be allowed to allocate reductions in branch funding for the fiscal year beginning July 1, the Legislative Analyst’s Office said Friday.
In a 16-page report entitled The 2012-13 Budget: Managing Ongoing Reductions to the Judicial Branch, the LAO—the Legislature’s nonpartisan fiscal watchdog—proposed that lawmakers “reject the Governor’s proposed budget bill language authorizing the Judicial Council to allocate the reductions, adopt specific actions to achieve ongoing savings in the judicial branch, and require that the judicial branch submit a report on potential operational efficiencies.”
Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed a budget for the next fiscal year that reflects cumulative ongoing reductions totaling $653 million for the branch, including the continuation of a $350 million reduction enacted for the current fiscal year. One-time transfers from branch special funds were used to offset $302 million of the cumulative reduction during the current year, with other savings coming from operational changes, including furloughs and closing courtrooms, the LAO noted.
Brown wants to give the branch full authority to allocate the cuts for the next fiscal year, while proposing $50 million in new fees to offset part of the reduction. The LAO, however, questioned whether a grant of unrestrained authority to the Judicial Council would serve the public interest.
“Given the magnitude of the proposed budget reductions and the limited availability of special fund balances to offset the ongoing reductions, decisions about how the cuts are allocated would likely have significant impacts on public access to the courts, as well as court operations and projects,” the LAO said. “Therefore, we recommend the Legislature establish its own funding priorities for the judicial branch rather than leaving such discretion entirely to the Judicial Council. While the Legislature should carefully consider the advice of the judicial branch and stakeholders, we believe that the Legislature should ultimately decide on the reductions adopted.”
In addition to enacting the proposed fee increases, the LAO proposed $123 million in specific cost savings for next year, including $13 million from implementing electronic court reporting, $23 million from charges for court reporting in civil cases, and $25 million from reducing court funding based on a “resource allocation study” showing that superior courts in 10 counties were overfunded in proportion to their caseloads.
Reducing funding to those courts, in phases, would save $25 million in the first year and $40 million annually when fully implemented, the LAO said.
The LAO noted that it has previously recommended the court reporting and resource allocation reductions. Another $62 million would come from transfers of CCMS funding to trial courts.
Many federal courts and courts in other states have implemented electronic reporting, the LAO noted, and California conducted an electronic reporting pilot project in the 1990s. Upon full implementation, the LAO said, courts can save $100 million annually through electronic reporting.
The LAO proposed that state law be amended to require that litigants—absent indigency waivers—pay the cost of reporting all civil proceedings, not just those lasting more than one hour. It also chided unnamed courts that it said were not collecting fees for the services of court reporters despite being authorized to do so by law.
The Los Angeles Superior Court has already announced that it will no longer provide court reporters in civil cases. A spokesperson said Friday that a tentative decision has been made to implement the change on May 15, but that conversations with the court’s reporters, many of whom will be laid off or converted to part-time status, are ongoing.
Family law, probate, juvenile, and criminal courts will not be affected, the spokesperson added.
Careful Review Urged
The LAO expressed optimism that new fees could be implemented without significant impacts on court users, noting that more than $44 million in revenues were generated in FY2010-2011 by increases in civil fees, plus a $3 penalty added to parking citations. But it noted that the Judicial Council has not provided a breakdown of proposed increases and said the Legislature should “carefully review” such proposals.
Options for reductions beyond the $123 million, the LAO said, include furloughing employees one day a month for the year, at a projected saving of $65 million; delaying or canceling some construction projects, potentially saving $100 million; and mandating further reductions in services.
The LAO warned, however, that service reductions have already impacted a number of courts, resulting in backlogs and delays.
The Alliance of California Judges Friday issued a statement voicing general support for the LAO’s recommendation, in particular its call for reductions to be specified by the Legislature rather than left to the Judicial Council’s discretion. But it warned that the projection of savings from full implementation of electronic reporting was “totally unrealistic.”
The AOC had no immediate response to the report, but in a related development, it issued a statement saying its working group overseeing the judicial branch’s facilities program “is recommending that 13 planned courthouse projects be reassessed with the goal of significantly lowering their costs.”
Those recommendations are scheduled to be considered by the council April 24.
Copyright 2012, Metropolitan News Company