Budget Chair Sends Message to Court Officials|on Transparency and Spending Habits

     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.
     The administrative office director, Steven Jahr, said legislative decisions made in the 1990s and paltry state spending on the judiciary have brought the state’s courts “to the tipping point.”
     San Bernardino County has been especially hard-hit by cuts to the judiciary. The largest county in the lower 48 states, in terms of land mass, has closed seven facilities and currently only has five courts left open to serve 2 million people, according Judge Marsha Slough, the county’s presiding judge.
     “It has had a devastating impact on justice in our county,” Slough said. “And justice comes close to being shut down if the status quo continues.”
     The vast county’s outlying areas have borne the brunt of the cuts, where the court closure in the desert town of Needles now means driving to San Bernardino-a 440-mile drive round trip.
     Contra Costa County’s presiding judge Barry Goode also questioned the Department of Finance figures showing the state’s spending on the judiciary have remained flat in recent years.
     “If the expenditures remained flat, why have we made these cuts,” Goode asked the committee. “Because the budget summary mixes operations costs with capital costs, something no business in the U.S. would ever do. The real number is not flat, it’s a 21 percent cut.”
     “There’s nothing left to cut-that’s why we’ve fallen off the cliff this year,” Goode told the committee. “This is not why I became a judge, to close courts and make these hateful decisions.”
     Ultimately however, the committee chair, Jones-Sawyer called for a vote on the agenda item to restore $418 million to the courts from the general fund. Jones-Sawyer and committee members Diane Harkey, a republican from Orange County, Melissa Melendez, a republican from Murrieta, Anthony Rendon, a democrat from South Gate and Mark Stone, a democrat from Monterey Bay, all voted in favor of the motion.
     On a second agenda item, committee members voted to recommend approval of just three efficiency proposals devised by the AOC, largely to generate revenue for the courts. The closed-session group originally came up with 17 ideas, later whittled down to 11 — five that would have reduced trial court workload and operating costs and six that would have increased court user fees.
     If the Assembly approves the sub-committee’s recommendation, trial courts will no longer have to provide social security numbers for individuals involved in court-ordered debt collection. Instead, the Franchise Tax Board will use its authority to obtain the information through the Department of Motor Vehicles, reducing court costs.
     Fee increase recommendations for exemplification of records — a triple certification of record authenticity required by many states — and small-claims mailing service also went to the Assembly for approval in the final budget, which is due June 15.
     The subcommittee declined to act on an AOC recommendation to charge a $10 per file search fee for file requests. The California Newspaper Publishers Association and a host of individual news organizations, including Courthouse News, the Monterey County Herald, Santa Rosa Press Democrat, San Jose Mercury News and the Sacramento Bee oppose the charge.
     The Judicial Council committee that recommended the charge could not estimate any fiscal impact. Newspaper comments have said that very few will be able to pay the exorbitant charge that would result from research of court files.
     Jim Ewert, with the newspaper publishers, noted that the news reporters covering a courthouse could easily look over 200 files a month in researching news stories and would as a result have to fork over $2,000 monthly to do their work.
     “‘Search’ is a misnomer, because it applies to same-day filings and will reduce news coverage of our courts,” Terry Francke told the committee. Francke heads the open-government group Californians Aware.
     “The administration of justice has to be observable,” he concluded.

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