SACRAMENTO (CN) - An Assembly subcommittee working on California's next budget recommended spending $418 million from the general fund to help the beleaguered trial court system. The vote was put in context by the overall budget chair who entered the hearing room briefly to deliver a message, telling judges and court officials that the courts need to be transparent and spend money responsibly.
"This discussion needs to be about the performance of the courts and fiscal irresponsibility," said Assembly budget chair Bob Blumenfield, a democrat from the San Fernando Valley, who had harsh words for the Administrative Office of the Courts and the Judicial Council.
He cited a half-billion dollars wasted on the now-defunct Court Case Management System (CCMS) and the approval of a new $2 billion courthouse in Long Beach which he said appears to include excess spending of $100 million.
After he entered from a door in back of the subcomittee's table and took a seat, Blumenfield noted that he normally keeps track of the subcommittee hearings in his office via video. He then launched into a statement noting that court officials were often talking about transparency but needed to deliver on that issue, pivoting to a discussion of spending mistakes by court administrators and the need for responsible handling of public funds.
The budget process is lengthy and lasts for another two months. Blumenfield's role as head of the Assembly's budget committee is central. His committee must agree with the Senate's budget committee before the 2013-2014 budget can be approved by the Legislature, and individual allocations can shift in the process.
On a related issue tied to overall court funding, an official from Governor Jerry Brown's administration, along with a representative from the Legislative Analyst's Office argued before the subcomittee that funding for the courts had in fact remained roughly stable over recent years, although the amount of money coming from the state's general fund has dropped drastically.
Jay Sturges for the California Department of Finance said the overall judicial budget remains "relatively flat."
He also questioned how individual trial courts were spending funds, saying that some courts are closing courthouses but at the same time giving pay increases to the staff. "We identified inconsistencies at the trial court level - closing courts but providing pay increases to employees," Sturges told the subcommittee.
"The state's budget is balanced, but by a thin margin," he warned. "There will therefore be no money for a restoration of cuts."
Orange County's presiding judge, Tom Borris, contested that description of court funding, saying that much of the replacement funds came from construction money and individual trial court reserve funds, and that funds to operate the courts had in fact dropped sharply.
In a public comment period, Michelle Castro with the Service Employees International Union that represents a majority of court workers also contested the statement from Sturges, saying no court employees were given raises. She has also in recent weeks questioned the ratio of administrators retained to court workers laid off.
Officials from the Administrative Office of the Courts backed by judges and other officials from San Bernardino County traveled to Sacramento to plead their case before Assembly Budget Subcommittee Number 5 on Public Safety, chaired by freshman Assembly member Reggie Jones-Sawyer, a democrat from South Los Angeles.