Metropolitan News-Enterprise

 

Friday, January 10, 2014

 

Page 1

 

Budget Proposal Includes $100 Million More for Trial Courts

 

From Staff and Wire Service Reports

 

Gov. Jerry Brown yesterday proposed a record $154.9 billion budget for the 2014-2015 fiscal year, including $3.273 for the judicial branch.

A total of $106.8 billion—$10.5 billion more than last year—including $1.325 billion in judicial branch spending, would come from the general fund. Total spending on court functions will increase by $105 million, of which $100 million will go to the trial courts and the rest to the appellate courts and the Administrative Office of the Courts.

Branch leaders praised the increase, but said it would do little more than allow them to continue to function at the level to which they have been reduced after multiple years of reductions.

Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said in a statement:

“I appreciate the Governor’s fiscal prudence as well as his recognition of the need for reinvestment in the judicial branch, and I will continue my discussions with the Governor, stressing the critical unmet needs of the branch. The judicial branch has undergone $1 billion in cuts during the last six years. Californians rely on a fully functioning court system to protect their constitutional rights, secure protective orders, resolve child custody issues, and settle business disputes. I hope to continue this productive dialogue with the executive and legislative branches in the next few months about the needs of those who rely on our courts. Access to justice must be meaningful, universal, and fair— it’s a fundamental right in a functioning democracy.”

Wesley Statement

 Los Angeles Superior Court Presiding Judge David Wesley released a statement, on behalf of the court, saying that he was “heartened” that the governor recognized the need to include trial courts in “the investment he is making in shoring up California’s infrastructure.” But because this is “the beginning of the budget process, not the end…we cannot be certain what the Governor’s proposal will mean for our Court for several months,” he said.

The extra money “may prove adequate to cover our Court’s existing unfunded costs and anticipated cost increases for the next fiscal year,” he said. Any available money beyond that, he said, would first be used to “sufficiently staff the Consolidation Plan we put in place last Spring,” he explained.

 “Under the Consolidation Plan, our Court maintains courtrooms in every case type, continues to provide self-help services, maintains access to domestic violence and civil harassment orders, and otherwise maintains the full spectrum of adjudicative functions (including, for instance, small claims).”

This will not, he said, clear up the “widespread delays and backlogs” that have resulted from the 25 percent reduction in staff that the court has had to implement over the last four years.

Methodology Explained

In a recent MetNews interview, Wesley explained that under the methodology adopted by the Judicial Council, which compares court caseloads to the reality of each county’s labor market, the Los Angeles Superior Court would need 1,500 additional employees, and more than $300 million in additional annual funding, to adequately meet the needs of the local citizenry.

In a memo to “Judicial Branch Colleagues,” Administrative Director of the Courts Steven Jahr said the branch will continue to push for elimination of the policy limiting trial court reserves to one percent of fund balances as of June 30 of this year.  He also warned that the governor’s proposal includes “no specific funding…for increased retirement and health benefits,” meaning that reductions will have to be made elsewhere.

In releasing his budget proposal yesterday, Brown said he take a somber approach in spending the windfall the state has received as a result of an improved economy and voter-approved tax increases of about $6 billion a year. He said California must begin paying down what he has called its massive “wall of debt,” a stew of unfunded liabilities, bond debt and borrowing that is estimated at $355 billion.

His somewhat cautious approach will run afoul of some of his fellow Democrats in the Legislature, many of whom already are clamoring for higher spending on pet programs.

“When you’re at this level of long-term liability, it isn’t time to just embark on a raft of new initiatives,” Brown said during a Capitol news conference. The news conference was moved up a day after copies of his budget proposal were leaked to media outlets late Wednesday.

He was scheduled to promote his budget plan late yesterday in San Diego and Los Angeles.

The plan dedicates $11 billion to paying down debts and liabilities, including $6 billion in payments that had been deferred to schools and nearly $4 billion to pay down the so-called economic recovery bonds left over from the administration of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

It does not address long-term liabilities in the state’s teacher retirement fund, which will require billions of dollars extra a year to make solvent. Instead, Brown said he wants to create a plan for long-term solvency this year. The teachers’ pension fund is estimated to be $80 billion in the red.

The plan also sets aside $1.6 billion for a rainy day fund to protect against future downturns, saying “wisdom and prudence should be the order of the day.”

The state’s legislative analyst forecasts that California will have a $3.2 billion operating surplus by the end of the fiscal year, one that is expected to approach $10 billion within three years. Brown has warned against spending all the surplus on new programs or to restore services cut during the recession, saying the state needs to prepare for future recessions and get control of its debts.

“Now some people would say, because we have this little black mark there, that we should go on a spending binge,” he said, pointing to a chart showing this year’s surplus. “I don’t agree with that. We see the lessons in history.”

That approach appeals to minority Republicans, who generally praised the budget while warning against spending pressure from Democratic lawmakers in the months ahead.

“I like where it’s at,” said Assembly Minority Leader Connie Conway, R-Tulare. “My fear is that it’s not going to stay as constrained as it is right now.”

 

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