SACRAMENTO (CN) – In unveiling his 2015-16 spending plan Friday, Gov. Jerry Brown said California courts will get more money this year, but the judiciary needs to do a better job of managing it.
Brown’s proposed budget sends an additional $180 million from the general fund to the judicial branch, with $90 million of it going to support trial courts. The total courts budget would rise from $3.29 billion last fiscal year to $3.47 billion in the coming one.
The money is part of a two-year funding strategy Brown released last year, which gave the judiciary $160 million in new money and promised the trial courts an additional 5 percent funding increase in 2015-16. Brown’s total projected budget for the General Fund is $113.3 billion.
“We’re giving the courts more money and we do think they are pressed. I know they’ve been facing pressures for a long time. We think we’ve given them the right amount of money but they have to manage it and there are some areas of savings they have to capture,” Brown told reporters.
Brown’s proposal for the courts includes $42.7 million to fund trial court employee benefits and $26.9 million to offset the predicted workload increase for the courts from the passage of Proposition 47, which reduces penalties in California for some misdemeanors.
Chief Justice Tani-Cantil-Sakauye said in a statement Friday: “I welcome the continued and additional investments by the governor in his proposed budget for California’s judicial branch. There is a much-needed increase in the overall branch budget as well as a baseline increase for trial court operations.”
She added: “The proposal is consistent with our multi-year approach to rebuild and create a more accessible and efficient court system to serve the people of California.”
The state auditor on Wednesday released a report highlighting, among other instances of dubious spending, salaries for judicial bureaucrats that are higher than the governor’s.
The audit also found that the judiciary’s bureaucracy, the Administrative Office of the Courts, had wasted $30 million over four years that might have gone to keeping the courts running during the height of California’s fiscal crisis.
Brown cited the audit Friday, saying the chief justice is “well aware of the problem,” and that the audit should provide some guidance on where the judiciary can save.
He added: “She’s creating her own group to look into it and I think they can handle it fine.”
That group was created a few hours after the audit’s release Wednesday, when the Judicial Council met in an emergency closed session. Wednesday evening, a news release appeared on the council’s website saying several council members had been chosen to lead a new working group to review the audit’s recommendations.
But Auditor Elaine Howle did not seem to have much confidence in the Judicial Council’s oversight ability.
“Given the lapses in Judicial Council oversight and AOC decision making that we have identified throughout this report, we believe significant change is warranted,” Howle said. “We are concerned that without significant change, the Judicial Council and AOC will continue to publicly embrace plans to address the weaknesses that we and others have identified but fail to take the steps necessary to repair those weaknesses in a meaningful and transparent way.”
She added: “If the Judicial Council does not undertake sufficient and timely action in response to our recommendations, it may be desirable to amend the provisions of the California Constitution that prescribe the powers of the Judicial Council so that the reforms we recommend can be implemented.”
Shortly after the budget’s release, the Alliance of California judges, a reform group that successfully lobbied the Legislature to approve the audit, released a statement calling for funding to be sent directly to the courts, rather than to the Judicial Council that allocates the money to the courts, as the budget act dictates.
“As the governor releases his budget and members of the Legislature begin the task of making decisions on how judicial dollars should be spent, our message is clear: Without significant and systemic reform, the AOC will continue to siphon off the dollars we desperately need to keep our local courts running,” the group said.
“At a minimum, and until the statutory or constitutional changes necessary for real reform can be enacted, we call on our sister branches of government to bypass the Judicial Council and its bloated bureaucracy and directly appropriate branch dollars to the local courts.”
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