Monday, June 23, 2003
Lawmakers Say Deal on Fee Hikes Will Limit Court Budget Cuts
By DAVID KLINE
SACRAMENTO (CAPITOL) — Republicans and Democrats in the state Legislature remained deadlocked on several major budget issues Friday, but funding for the trial courts appeared to be a settled issue, members of both parties said.
Concurring with what Los Angeles Superior Court Assistant Presiding Judge William A. MacLaughlin told a meeting of the Italian American Lawyers Association last week, legislative aides said the judiciary will be asked to cut $85 million from the trial courts statewide, along with $8 million from the Supreme Court, Judicial Council and Courts of Appeal.
The reductions would be tempered with a variety of filing fee increases and new fees. The trial court fee changes include:
•Increasing the fee for limited jurisdiction cases involving more than $10,000 from $90 to $185.
•Increasing the small claims filing fee for those who file more than 12 cases a year from $35 to $60.
•Increasing the summary judgment motion fee from $100 to $150.
•Creating a continuance fee of $100 for all civil and family law cases.
•Creating a “complex litigation fee” of $500.
•Creating a graduated filing fee for probate proceedings concerning decedent estates.
•Creating a $22 million court security fee through an assessment on all civil filings and on any criminal defendant who is found guilty.
Other changes would allow the appellate courts to increase their filing fees, to $420 from the current $265, and would transfer $31 million in fees from the counties — which already collect them — to the courts.
Sen. Joseph Dunn, a Garden Grove Democrat who chairs the Senate subcommittee which deals with state court funding, said fee increases suggested by the Legislature will raise approximately $41 million.
Dunn explained that Gov. Gray Davis had proposed cuts of $116 million from the trial courts and $18 million from the appellate courts and Judicial Council. The Legislature’s version of the budget cuts is approximately $41 million less, and the fee increases are intended to mirror that number.
Together with increases suggested by the governor and those transferred from the counties, the fee changes will give the courts $149 million per year, said William Vickrey, administrative director of the state courts.
Brian K. O’Neel, press secretary for Sen. Tim Leslie, R-Roseville, said that while Republicans remain steadfastly opposed to proposed increases in the sales tax and other taxes, they will not oppose the filing fee increases.
“Our caucus is not taking a stand against it,” O’Neel said. “The reason is [Democrats] proposed a bunch of cuts for the courts. The courts came back to us and told us they could take the cuts if they could raise the fees.”
O’Neel said as long as the fees are used by the courts, and don’t go into the state’s General Fund for other spending, Republicans are likely to provide enough votes to give the required two-thirds majority approval in the Legislature.
“The fees are fees for services in the civil courts,” O’Neel said, “so that kids don’t have to wait three years to get justice from their abusing father, for example.”
The parties also appear to have agreed with the governor’s proposal to transfer money from a court construction fund into the judiciary’s general fund. The transfer would come in the form of an $80 million loan from the State Court Facilities Construction Fund, to be put into the general operating budget for the trial courts.
Gov. Gray Davis’ proposal did not include a repayment date, but a legislative conference committee specified that the state would repay the money, with interest, to the construction fund by Jan. 1, 2006.
The construction fund was created by legislation signed last year. That legislation specifies that the money “shall only be used” for acquiring, rehabilitating, building or financing court facilities. The fund has approximately $7 million, according to the Judicial Council, so the $80 million loan would be based on projected revenue. The money comes into the fund from filing fee increases, similar to those currently proposed, that were enacted last year.
Dunn said Republican Sen. Dick Ackerman, a lawyer who represents a district in Orange County, was instrumental in crafting the judiciary’s budget.
“If it wasn’t for Senator Ackerman, I’m not sure a bipartisan agreement could have been reached,” Dunn said.
Dunn said he and Ackerman met after Davis released his May budget revision and agreed that “lawyer to lawyer, this proposal from the Davis administration is not acceptable — it’s putting an unfair burden on the courts.” With the Judicial Council, they worked on a compromise plan.
Now, Dunn said, the challenge is to make sure the compromise is not shattered during the negotiations over other items in the state budget.
“Both Senator Ackerman and I are vigilant that the ongoing budget stalemate could pose a threat to the bipartisan settlement on the courts,” Dunn said.
Vickrey said any delay in passing a budget will have a negative impact on the court compromise.
“The proposed revenues that are based on changes in the fees obviously are dependent on the budget passing,” Vickrey said. “If we hit July 1 without a budget, every day that a budget isn’t approved is a day that the money isn’t collected. That will be our biggest problem — if that budget is delayed for very long, we’ll lose out on significant revenue.”
Most big-money items in the state budget remained unsettled Friday. Republicans are opposed to a Democrat-favored sales tax increase of one-half cent on every dollar spent, while Democrats oppose reductions in health and welfare spending that Republicans are pushing.
One contentious issue that heated up Friday is the vehicle license fee, which Republicans refer to as the state “car tax.” Steve Peace, the director of the Department of Finance, filed paperwork necessary to trigger a tripling of the registration fee under the administration’s interpretation of a 1998 law which reduced the fee but allowed for an increase when the state is running out of money. (See related story, Page 8.)
Republican Leslie said Republicans do not welcome the trigger, and believe that Peace’s action was not authorized by the 1998 law.
“It’s a travesty, and it’s illegal,” Leslie said. “This was done so Davis and the majority could get around the constitutional requirement to get a two-thirds vote for any tax increase.”
Leslie said he and many other Republicans have joined a suit to keep the vehicle fee increase from taking effect. The suit, to be filed by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, will not use any taxpayers’ funds, Leslie said.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company