California Court Budget Given $262M Boost

     (CN) - With Gov. Jerry Brown's revised budget set for release Tuesday, California lawmakers voted last week to add $262 million to the court budget, provided the money does not go to any statewide technology projects.
     While the head of the budget subcommittee, Assembly member Reginald Jones-Sawyer Sr. (D-Los Angeles), said every member of the Assembly firmly believes the courts should get more funding, spending should be watched carefully by the Legislature to ensure the money goes to keeping courts open.
     In light of a highly-criticized and mostly defunct statewide computer project for the courts that cost taxpayers at least $500 million, the budget committee added language to its motion specifying that the extra funds "cannot be used for a statewide court information tech project," adding, "If local courts want to use it for technology projects, they must report back to the legislature prior to any changes of the use of these funds."
     "I also want to make sure we put in some type of performance standard," Jones-Saywer said.
     The Assembly budget subcommittee on public safety's vote comes after 70 assembly members and 36 senators signed two letters, one from the Assembly and one from the Senate, urging the governor to add another $336 million to his proposed $105 allocation to the trial courts, whose budgets have been cut to the bone over the past five years. Over a billion in cumulative cuts have forced the closure of 51 courthouses and 205 courtrooms, the letters say.
     "It is the court's users who have largely paid the price," said a letter sent on the assembly side from Bob Wieckowski (D-Fremont), chair of the Assembly's Judiciary Committee. "Unless there is an infusion of additional funds this year, courts will be forced to further reduce services and, thereby reduce even today's limited access to justice still further."
     Chief Justice Tani-Cantil Sakauye has said the courts need $1.2 billion over the next three years to stay fiscally afloat, but Jones-Sawyer did not seem receptive to such a high figure.
     He said a group of judges visited him this week and gave him a list of areas where the courts could improve, and where efficiencies could be measured over the next budget year.
     "I think it will go a long way to giving the governor some measure of hope that when we come back again next year no matter what amount we give, that we'll be able to discuss not only what you did, but I want to have a frank and open conversation on how we can get more bang for our buck. So even though the courts may want $1.2 billion, that we get to the real number quicker and that we use some efficiencies to lower that number down," Jones-Sawyer said.
     Budget Analyst Madelynn McClain said the Governor's Department of Finance stands opposed to the courts getting any amount over the $105 million Brown proposed in January.
     "We recognize that budget reductions have had a significant impact on the courts leading to reduced hours, staff, closed courtrooms, however we the reductions to other state entities were equal to if not greater in magnitude," she told the committee. "The governor's budget proposes $100 million to support trial court operations, which is an amount that can be sustained given that the state is just beginning to emerge from the recession."
     Just before the vote, she reiterated that view. "We would object to providing any additional funding beyond what's proposed in the governor's budget," she said.
     "Of course you do," Jones-Sawyer said, laughing.