Brown Adds $100 Million to Court Budget

     (CN) - Governor Jerry Brown on Thursday proposed a budget with $3.2 billion for California's courts, an increase of $105 million over last year. The new budget largely eliminates local trial court reserve funds in favor of one big Judicial Council-controlled pot for rainy day expenses.
     "There was great disparity among individual courts, and it's one of the key, final pieces to moving to a state funded court system," Department of Finance Director Michael Cohen told reporters Thursday morning. "We do add a $100 million in the budget for trial courts to help them continue to transition to the new system."
     He said some trial courts have weathered California's recessionary economy and drastic budget cuts better than others. The additional funds should address "some of the historical inequities among the courts," Cohen said.
     He commended a new funding formula worked out by a working group of judges and court clerks last year that allocates money based on a court's workload and case filings.
     Reacting to the budget proposal, Los Angeles Presiding Judge David Wesley said Thursday afternoon, "We are heartened that Governor Jerry Brown recognizes that, after sharing so much of the devastating cuts to state government over the past 5 years, the trial courts should be part of the investment he is making in shoring up California's infrastructure."
     According to a flurry of announcements that preceded the budget release, Brown's budget was expected to be unveiled Friday, but was instead leaked Wednesday night and then officially announced Thursday morning.
     The funding mechanism within the new budget completes a transformation from a system that relied in part on reserve funds controlled by local trial courts. Those funds are now limited to one percent of the local court's budget while the remaining lion's share will be controlled by the courts' top rule-making body, the Judicial Council, where most members are appointed by the chief justice.
     One of the key provisions outlined in Brown's budget summary for the judiciary is a plan to ask all trial court employees to contribute to their pensions.
     "There is a longstanding disparity in trial court employees in terms of how much they pay into their pensions," Cohen said. "There are some employees in the court system that still pay nothing into their pensions. We need to move toward employees paying into roughly half the cost of their pensions."
     Though pressed by reporters, Cohen declined to say whether the pension mandate will apply to employees of the Administrative Office of the Courts, the judiciary's administrative agency based in San Francisco. The top 30 administrators in the AOC enjoyed a top-loaded pension perk where the taxpayers contributed 22 percent on top of salary to the administrators' pension accounts without any matching contribution from the individual administrator.
     Under pressure from the Legislature, the administrative office in 2012 gave up its perk for new hires, but those who had been receiving the benefit were grandfathered, with a state contribution capped at 5 percent.
     At Thursday morning's press conference, Cohen said, "We would like to see all public employees in the state move to that," referring to the goal of having state employees contribute half the cost of their pensions.
     Brown's budget summary gave an additional $15 million to the judiciary as a "one-time investment" from the general fund, part of a five-year infrastructure plan for California.
     Los Angeles Superior Court, the largest court in the nation, has been forced to close courthouses and fire hundreds of its workers as hundreds of millions of dollars were cut from California's court budget in recent years.
     "It is important to put this proposal in context," said Wesley. "As currently stated, the increased funding may prove adequate to cover our Court's existing unfunded costs and anticipated cost increases for the next fiscal year."
     He noted the budget proposal is only the start of the budgeting process which goes through a revised budget proposal in late spring and a final round of horse trading in the Legislature during the summer.
     "Given a required 25% reduction in staff, we are only able to maintain access to justice at the price of widespread delays and backlogs," said the judge. Additional funding would allow the massive trial court for roughly one third of the state's population to reduce some of those backlogs and speed up delays in decding matters large and small.
     Speaking with reporters while the budget was still being formed, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said in December that she expected the governor's budget to be "fiscally conservative, parsimonious," but that she had been meeting with members of the Department of Finance regularly.
     "We don't agree and we refute their numbers and they refute our numbers. But its an honest, candid conversation," said the chief justice at the time.
     In a statement Thursday, Cantil-Sakauye said, "I appreciate the Governor's fiscal prudence as well as his recognition of the need for reinvestment in the judicial branch, and I will continue my discussions with the Governor, stressing the critical unmet needs of the branch."