Friday, September 6, 2002
Governor Signs Slimmed-Down Budget, Including $1.6 Billion for Courts
By a MetNews Staff Writer
Gov. Gray Davis signed legislation yesterday enacting a $98.9 billion state budget, including nearly $1.6 billion for the state’s courts.
The legislation, signed 67 days after the deadline set in the state Constitution, “reduces General Fund spending for only the third time in 50 years,” the governor emphasized in a release. Last year’s budget totaled about $103 billion.
“It is not a perfect document,” Davis said of this year’s fiscal plan during a brief press conference at the Capitol, “but it does take an important step to meeting the state’s fiscal challenges.”
The Democratic governor said he is “pleased that it protects the priorities that I laid out in January — public education, public safety vital programs for seniors and health insurance for children.”
Prior to signing the budget, Davis used his line-item veto to strike $206 million in spending proposed by the Legislature, including $52 million for a welfare program for parents and $36 million intended to help counties administer Medi-Cal and food stamp programs.
He also eliminated $800,000 in new spending for family court services.
“Although this program is meritorious, deletion of funding for this program expansion is necessary in light of current fiscal constraints,” the governor wrote. “With this action, $111.5 million remains to support family court services.”
The blue-penciling of those funds was unsurprising, since lawmakers added that money to the governor’s budget proposal without his prior approval, state courts director William Vickrey said. The veto primarily affects counties where child custody mediators make recommendations to the courts, rather than having custody evaluations performed by independent professionals, he explained.
“Overall, the budget that was signed today is basically the budget as was agreed to by the conference committee last June,” he explained, so there weren’t any surprises.
The state appropriations represent about 60 percent of the total funding for the judicial branch. Other funds come from county maintenance-of-effort contributions, fines, user fees, and miscellaneous fees that the state has dedicated to courts.
Trial courts, Vickrey said, are going to be substantially impacted, not only by the lean new budget but by a state revenue crisis that shows no signs of abating, even as the courts’ “cost of doing business” is going up as a result of increased security needs and contractual commitments that must be honored.
There are some statewide accounts that can be tapped to meet local needs, he said, but trial courts are going to have make unallocated reductions of 3.75 percent of their operating budgets.
Since some expenses, such as jury costs, are not part of the operating budget, the reductions will amount to 2.75 percent of total budgets, he explained.
Courts are looking at various options for cutting, including reduced staffing levels, reassessing security, calendar adjustments to avoid overtime, cutting clerk’s hours, and furloughs.
While all 58 of the superior courts will face challenges, he added, Los Angeles—which sent layoff notices to over 300 employees last week—has “additional problems” attributable to its creation of programs that were never funded by an appropriation.
The court, he explained, is thus faced with a problem it “could not have anticipated three or four years ago”—having to reallocate funds in a context where “not only is there no growth in the budget, there’s actually a reduction.”
At yesterday’s news conference, the governor and Finance Director Timothy Gage both indicated that work on next year’s budget will begin right away, but they declined to say whether they believe tax increases or larger cuts will be needed in that spending plan.
It would be “absolutely foolhardy” to predict whether taxes or cuts will be part of the budget next year, Davis said.
“It’s pointless to speculate as to what we’re going to do [in the next fiscal year],” Gage added.
The state’s nonpartisan legislative analyst has predicted that next year’s budget already faces a deficit of at least $9 billion.
Along with cuts to some programs, the budget uses $2 billion in loans, the anticipation of $1 billion from the federal government and accounting techniques to bridge the gap between anticipated revenue and previously approved spending. Gage acknowledged that receiving much federal money “is probably a longshot.”
The budget anticipates saving $750 million by eliminating 7,000 vacant positions within the state government. Davis said the move “reduces the size of state government,” but Gage indicated that 2,500 vacancies will remain after the budget, meaning some state agencies will continue to receive money to pay employees who don’t exist.
The budget also borrows against future payments from the state’s settlement with major tobacco companies. That action will provide $4.5 billion in revenue now, rather than a larger total spaced out over many years.
Bill Simon, the Republican businessman who is challenging Davis in the November election, released a statement which said the budget “is not worth the paper it is written on.”
“It is a fabrication that is neither balanced nor fiscally responsible,” Simon said. “The budget relies on billions of dollars in loans, funds shifts and transfers.”
Simon did not offer an alternative plan, although he promised reporters last year that he would do so by early this year.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company