Thursday, May 15, 2003
Governor’s Revised Budget Gives Minor Help to Trial Courts
By DAVID KLINE
SACRAMENTO (CAPITOL)—Gov. Gray Davis’ revised state budget, released yesterday, continues to call for major cuts in state funding for the trial courts, but tempers the pain with a $17.7 million allocation to cover rising employment expenses, including worker’s compensation insurance costs.
The May revision of the plan submitted to the Legislature in January includes a $116 million cut from the trial courts to be allocated by Chief Justice Ronald George and the rest of the Judicial Council.
The Judicial Council has indicated the cuts will include $87 million from the budget for general operations of the trial court, $5 million from the Judicial Administration and Modernization Fund and $1.9 million from payments to assigned judges.
Tina Hansen, the Judicial Council’s director of finance, said another proposed cut prompted many phone calls from worried judges yesterday because of a description distributed by the Governor’s Office. That description cites a “reduction of $10 million to the Compensation of Superior Court Judges,” but Hansen explained that doesn’t translate to pay cuts for judges, whose $139,476 annual salaries are immune from reduction under the state Constitution.
The savings in compensation would be achieved by leaving vacant judgeships unfilled, according to the Department of Finance.
“Difficult times force us to examine our priorities and make difficult choices,” Davis told reporters at a Capitol news conference. “I have done that and my choices reflect my values.”
The budget proposal, Davis said, preserves necessary spending on education and public safety, while cutting $7.6 billion in General Fund spending and increasing taxes to bridge an estimated $38.2 billion difference between previously authorized spending and anticipated revenue.
To focus media attention on the areas least affected by cuts, the governor made his budget announcement in front of a large group of teachers, firefighters and law enforcement officers invited to the event.
Davis did not mention judicial branch funding during the press conference.
One major budget provision affecting the courts is an $80 million transfer from the recently created Court Facilities Construction Fund to the trial courts’ general operating budget. This transfer would be treated as a loan, to be repaid with interest at an unspecified date.
Vickrey Expresses Worry
William Vickrey, administrative director of California’s court system, said he is concerned about the loan proposal.
“It worries me,” Vickrey said. “They’re borrowing projected revenue—not money that’s already in the fund, but projected revenue. If the projections are not accurate—that could become another reduction for the trial courts.”
Vickrey said he also hopes for more details on when the money would be repaid, since the courts are supposed to be planning to use the construction fund to shift ownership of the courthouses from the counties to the state in July 2004.
Davis’ plan also would rely on other types of borrowing to balance the 2003-04 books on paper. The plan calls for $2.9 billion in loans, $1.9 billion in transfers, $2 billion in “fund shifts” and $10.7 billion in deficit financing.
The Democratic governor said the deficit would be whittled down in the next few years, but did not provide a specific timeline for getting the state out of the red.
Long-term budgeting is necessary, the governor said, because both parties in the Legislature refused to go along with his January proposal for a budget that would be balanced, on paper, in one year. Democrats have opposed many of the governor’s spending cuts and Republicans have opposed his proposed tax increases, leaving many major budget decisions left to be made before the July 1 start of the new fiscal year.
Davis’ budget calls for $7.8 billion in tax hikes: a sales tax increase of one half-cent per dollar of purchases, a tobacco tax increase of 23 cents per pack of cigarettes and a new 10.3 percent state income tax bracket to take $2.7 billion from California’s top earners.
The governor said the sales tax hike would be a temporary tax that would be written to cancel itself as soon as the state’s deficit was gone.
Despite his call for $7.8 billion in new taxes, the written explanation of the budget revision indicated that Davis agrees with Republicans who have been arguing that tax increases harm the economy.
“[T]he national economy is better positioned to get back on track than it was last year at this time,” the budget summary said. “In addition, the anticipated federal tax cut will give it a boost in the second half of the year.”
State Controller Steve Westly, a Democrat serving his first term, said the governor’s plan will help him negotiate to borrow $11 billion through revenue anticipation warrants.
“Investors want to see that California is taking concrete steps toward solving its budget crisis,” Westly said. “This budget moves us in the right direction.”
Assemblyman Tim Leslie, R-Roseville, strongly disagreed, calling the governor’s proposals “disastrous.” He blamed the state’s fiscal crisis on the fact that “Sacramento politicians spent too much” and said the governor should have sought “structural reforms” instead of pushing the “status quo.”
Attorney General Bill Lockyer, on the other hand, praised the governor for canceling previously proposed cuts to the state’s crime labs, abuse prosecution teams and the Witness Protection Program. Lockyer said the programs are “essential to public safety.”
Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley also hailed the revised budget. “Restoration of witness protection money will save the lives of witnesses and victims in gang cases in Los Angeles,” Cooley said.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company