Budget Plan Gives Modest Raise to California Courts

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – California Gov. Jerry Brown on Tuesday unveiled a cautious spending proposal that would add $35.4 million in new funding to support California’s trial courts.

Brown said his overall $122.5 billion general spending plan reflects California’s dwindling revenue stream, which has put the state at a projected $2 billion deficit.

“The surging tide of revenue increases that we enjoyed the past few years appears to have turned. Instead, we now face a budget deficit of $2 billion,” Brown said in a letter to the California Legislature on Tuesday. “While this amount pales in comparison to the $27 billion deficit we faced in 2011, it demands our attention. Small deficits can quickly mushroom into large ones if not promptly eliminated.”

In the face of modest revenues, Brown declined to fund any new courthouse construction beyond authorizing $7.9 million in bonds four projects already underway in Calaveras, Riverside, San Bernardino and Tulare counties.

Brown also chose to pass over funding for new judgeships, instead saying he will forge ahead with plans to move four vacant judgeships from the Bay Area to courts in Riverside and San Bernardino.

“Given the uncertainties in the state’s budget in the coming fiscal year, Gov. Brown’s proposed budget for the judicial branch is prudent,” California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said in a statement. “The governor’s proposals would provide funding to offset declines in other revenue, assist with trial court case management systems, and contribute to trial court employee health and retirement benefits costs. We will continue to press for additional trial court revenue and any other necessary changes to address the vital needs of those seeking justice in the court system.”

State Senate Judiciary Committee chair Hannah-Beth Jackson echoed the chief justice’s sentiments.

“The governor is taking a cautious approach to the budget as California faces financial uncertainty at home and the possibility of unknown and deep cuts in federal funding from a Republican Congress and incoming Trump administration. As chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, adequate investments in our court system are vital for ensuring that all Californians can pursue justice. I will continue to watch and advocate for our court system as the budget moves forward and this year’s budgetary challenges become clearer,” Jackson said in a statement.

New funding in Brown’s total $3.6 billion budget for the judiciary includes $5 million over two years to update case management software in Humboldt, Lake, Madera, Modoc, Plumas, Sierra, San Benito, Trinity, and Tuolumne counties; $7.1 million for trial court employee retirement and health benefit costs; and $5.1 million in pay raises and benefits for judges.

The budget plan also backfills a decline in criminal fine and fee revenue for the courts by $55 million. While it provides $20 million less than last year, Brown explained that revenues are anticipated to be higher this year.

Brown’s budget also aims to change Government Code §68203, which ties judicial pay to the average of what state employees earn. According to a memo from Judicial Council staff, the amendment will change the calculation so that judges will receive a raise proportional to any raise state workers get, retroactive to July 1.

Brown had threatened to repeal the code altogether this past June, after a class of 3,400 active and retired judges won a major judgment in Mallano v. Chiang, a case claiming that judges and justices had taken pay cuts at the height of the state’s fiscal crisis in 2008 but never received the raises to which they were entitled.

A Los Angeles court ruled that judges should have been given pay raises between 2008-2013 and are entitled to recover what they are owed, plus 10 percent interest.

Efforts to preserve the code divided judges’ groups, as a portion of that interest was conceded by the California Judges Association during the negotiation process.

In October, Brown’s Department of Finance said judges would receive a 1.36 percent increase, and that it would only be retroactive to the bargaining units that had ratified agreements prior to July 1, 2016.

Brown’s January budget proposal appears to amend the statute to make raises retroactive to all state workers’ salary increases, though the language is unclear and Brown’s Department of Finance did not respond to a request for clarification.

This budget session, Brown will also look to repeal suspending driver’s licenses of defendants who fail to pay traffic tickets or other fines, which spells a loss of tens of millions in revenue for the courts, cities, counties and special state programs.

“There does not appear to be a strong connection between suspending someone’s driver’s license and collecting their fine or penalty,” a memo from the Department of Finance said, which noted that uncollected debt soared from $5.5 billion in 2008-09 to $9.7 billion last year.

Money from traffic fines and penalties tied to other low-level offenses yields about $2 billion in annual revenue to the state, which is distributed among myriad city, county and state funds. A report by the Legislative Analyst’s Office lists courthouse construction, court operations, domestic violence and drug programs, and victim restitution funds among them.

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