State Finance Director Signals Continued Oversight of Judiciary Branch Budget

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - In a meeting with members of the governing body for California's courts, the incoming director of the governor's finance department said the old days of simply accepting the judiciary branch's proposed budget are unlikely to return.
     Michael Cohen, who is taking over from outgoing finance director Ana Matosantos in September, met with the Judicial Council on Thursday for a rundown of the budget process.
     "We've turned the corner on having our budget balanced, but it's very narrowly balanced. We're only looking for those requests that meet the strict guidelines of the letter in terms of being the absolute, most critical needs," Cohen said, referring to the budget change proposals that are due on September 13, a process through which the judicial branch can request more money.
     "Is there ever any special opportunity given to the leadership of the separate branches of government to make the case to the governor, to the Department of Finance, as to increasing the amounts for them to be included in the governor's budget?" Justice Marvin Baxter asked, pointing out that during times of prosperity, the governor would simply sign off on the budget submitted by the judiciary.
     Baxter asked Cohen if he could see the return of that system.
     "Assuming that the corner has been turned, do you envision -- based on the separation of powers -- that the governor would accept the budget submitted by the judicial branch as that portion of the governor's budget?"
     "To be quite honest, I wouldn't recommend it," Cohen replied.
     He continued, referring to the governor, "Part of his responsibility in proposing a budget is to review the budget of the judicial branch, and so it certainly is his prerogative to pass it on. But from a budgeting prospective, it makes sense for my department to review it and make recommendations for any changes. I would expect that to continue."
     "Does our branch enjoy any priority or sensitivity with respect to a budget change proposal?" Judge David De Alba of Sacramento asked,
     While Cohen said both the Legislature and the judicial branch are given deference, the governor gets the last word.
     "There is obviously a level of respect given to the legislature and the judicial branch," he said, later adding, "In terms of priorities and where the dollars go, that is the governor's priority. His priorities are my priorities," Cohen said.
     Some judges were more specific in their concerns, such as the governor's plan to sweep the trial courts' reserve funds, used to meet obligations like payroll, into one statewide pot. Under the plan, courts are to keep only one percent of their operating budgets in reserve.
     "Trial courts are very unique in California. You have 58 trial courts that are independent and have to operate their own budgets, if you will," Judge David Rosenberg of Yolo County said. "They have to be responsible for their own cash flow, payroll and all the things that a court has to take care of. Our single greatest concern is not having sufficient funds for cash flow. We are talking about paying the bills. Our concern is without a reasonable reserve, we will not be able to pay the bills. We will literally have to shut courts down. What are we going to do about that?"
     Cohen suggested that he may be receptive to changes.
     "As we continue down the road of implementing the reserve policy, anything on that cash flow side, we're open to making any changes," he said. "Certainly we have no interest in creating a situation where courts cannot pay the bills."