Budget Puts $63M Back Into California Courts

     (CN) - Both houses of the California Legislature passed a $96 billion budget package Friday that restores $63 million to the judiciary.
     "Today we vote on a budget that marks a new beginning for California, built on the core principles on the Assembly blueprint for a responsible budget," Assembly Budget Committee chair Bob Blumenfield said in an opening address. "The budget also ensures the delivery of effective, efficient services for Californians. It restores some funding for our courts to improve access to justice. By passing this budget today, we can solidify California's recovery. Our actions today call for better days ahead. Critics of this budget have foolishly said that California is returning to fast and free-spending ways. That's mythology. All of us think of items we wanted to include in this budget, and those items are not included in this budget. This budget is a compromise. We cannot provide for all the legitimate needs of this state. Every problem can't be solved, but we are taking steps in the right direction."
     Blumenfield also pointed out that the budget maintains a $1 billion reserve, and that this is the first year in many that the state has seen a surplus.
     In the slings and arrows leading up to Assembly vote, Republicans accused Democratic leadership of leaving them out of budget talks and counting on unstable Cap-and-Trade revenue.
     "If last year's budget was a big fat lie, this year's budget is a white lie," Assemblyman Tim Donnelly (R-Twin Peaks) said. "It is not an honest budget. We've opened up a new credit card, and it's called Cap-and-Trade funding. It's a slush fund of money we've confiscated from businesses. This is money we don't know will be there because we don't know if businesses will stay or not. But we're spending it. It is an embarrassment that this is the best we can do."
     Cap-and-Trade is a state program tied to a global-warming law whereby private businesses must cut their air pollution or buy carbon allowances through a state-run auction.
     Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, shared a more optimistic view.
     Holding up a water glass, Skinner said, "I look at this, and I see a glass that is more than half full."
     Before voicing opposition to the budget, Assemblywoman Connie Conway, R-Visalia, criticized the "drama" on the floor, adding that Republicans were not involved in major budget decisions.
     "This place has so much drama it reminds me of a Telenovela," she said. "Maybe the actors aren't as pretty, but it's a drama, nonetheless."
     Nevertheless, the Democrat supermajority all but guaranteed passage by mid-afternoon, 54-25.
     The Senate vote was less contentious, sailing through the upper house with a 28-10 vote Friday morning.
     Lawmakers from both parties spoke of the need to adequately fund the state's court system, which has seen nearly $1 billion in cuts in the last five years.
     "We really do need to focus as soon as we can to providing full funding for our courts," Sen. Mark Wyland, R-Carlsbad, said.
     Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, said, "Our courts are in a desperate state of disrepair, and we must remember that the judicial branch is a co-equal branch of government."
     "Our laws are meaningless if they can't get enforced," Jackson added. "Instead of being able to do that and protect our citizens ... our courtrooms are closed, we're losing access for people who seek justice, who need safety, people who are challenged in being able to stay in their homes. Our courts are in desperate shape and are not going to be accessible."
     The budget restores $60 million to the trial courts and $3 million to the courts of appeal. While both houses had voted for at least $100 million in restoration, they settled on $63 million in a joint conference earlier this week. Budget committee members from both sides seemed disappointed, but were resolute on the compromise.
     "The way I'm looking at this is that this funding is not going to help us reopen any of the courthouses that have been closed," Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, said. "But with it, we'll see no further closing or further lack of access to justice."
     Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, said "it is certainly better than nothing."
     "Anything always is," Hancock continued. "But I do feel it is nowhere near enough. This $60 million is a small down payment. The budget bill language is pretty clear that we want this additional money to go to maintain or increase access to justice, which open courtrooms are definitely part of."
     Legislators will continue voting on a host of trailer bills tied to the budget, including AB 80, a judiciary-related bill that commands greater legislative oversight on a new courthouse in Long Beach, an issue in which the Senate's Public Safety committee has taken an interest.
     In a report on the courthouse, which was built through a public-private partnership, the Legislative Analyst's Office found that taxpayers had overpaid. The project is estimated to cost $2.3 billion over the life of a 35-year contract with private financiers.
     Hancock called the project "a fiasco" at a hearing last month, and pushed for restrictions on future projects. The trailer bill before the Legislature requires the Judicial Council to submit an evaluation of the courthouse to the Legislature, the LAO and the Department of Finance by June 30, 2014, to address whether its building was cost-effective compared to traditional public-sector projects. It also requires a comparison of the cost assumptions from its inception to the actual costs incurred.