SACRAMENTO (CN) – The California Senate budget committee late last night passed 9-6 a proposal stripping the Judicial Council of power to spend trial court money on statewide projects without legislative approval.
The vote was taken at 9:30 Tuesday evening. It was clearly aimed at a massive IT project that failed after costing a half-billion dollars in public money.
The Senate budget committee proposal also cuts $7 million from the $8.6 million the Judicial Council set aside for salvaging parts of that same IT project, the Court Case Management System, which has been derided and despised by trial court judges for draining enormous sums from a fund intended to support local trial courts.
The wording of the proposal, read over the phone by a Senate staffer, is to “adopt language prohibiting use of trial court trust fund for statewide projects unless authorized by Legislature.”
At budget hearings in both legislative houses, lawmakers showed no intention of restoring funding for the courts, saying their budget plans were “99 percent” in line with Gov. Jerry Brown’s revised May budget.
“The Legislature seems poised to adopt most of the May revise,” Senate budget committee chair Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, said. “In the proposal before us, we have a number of points that will act as compromises to mitigate some of the concerns of the trial courts.”
As voting on budget spending extended late into the night, Senator Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, switched sides on the proposal regarding the courts when she realized the Judicial Council was in fact opposed to it.
“I guess I misunderstood,” Evans said. “The Judicial Council is not in agreement with the proposed compromise.”
Leno countered, saying a number of measures in the overall judiciary budget proposal have trial court support, a very different matter from administrative office or council support.
“A half-dozen have trial court support,” said Leno.
Both Evans and Leno are on the the Senate Judiciary Committee with Evans as the chair. She has been a strong supporter of measures backed by central court administrators who are often at loggerheads with local trial judges.
The Senate proposal, approved by a vote of 9-6, also reduced Brown’s $300 million sweep of trial court reserves to $235 million, partially offsetting that reduction by taking $15 million from the budget of the Administrative Office of the Courts.
It will also allow individual trial courts to keep one percent of their fund balances in reserve, and would establish a statewide court reserve fund of two percent. Courts will have to apply for money from the Judicial Council-controlled fund.
The issue of sweeping court fund balances into one giant pot has caused alarm among trial judges up and down the state.
“Having an emergency fund rest in the control of the Judicial Council, in which every court must run hat in hand when seeking permission to pay workman’s compensation claims or local infrastructure needs will hardly be productive or equitable,” Presiding Judge Laurie Earl of Sacramento testified at a Senate budget hearing last month.
“Those funds must be left with individual trial courts who have demonstrated fiscal responsibility in accumulating these funds to begin with. Anything less would cripple us.”
Judges have also argued that the governor’s plan shows a lack of understanding about how trial court budgets operate. Most courts have already committed their fund balances, sometimes mistakenly referred to as “reserve funds,” to meeting their financial obligations.
In the Legislature’s other chamber, the state Assembly’s budget committee held an informational meeting but took no action on any budget proposals Tuesday.
Assembly members expressed the same objections as many trial judges to the governor’s use of court fund balances to offset his cuts to the judiciary’s overall budget.
“If courts were prudent and tried to build up a reserve to offset layoffs, the governor’s proposal proposes to take that reserve from the courts. Instead of being rewarded, now they’re being punished,” said Assemblymember Luis Alejo (D-Watsonville).
“I have major concerns about that. When you’re hearing from judges what a negative impact this will have, it certainly needed to be raised here today,” he added. “Hopefully as we continue to have discussions this week that might be able to change.”
The Senate’s proposal to bar further spending on CCMS seems to have also gained support in the Assembly.
Assemblyman Gilbert Cedillo, a Los Angeles Democrat, said, “We have rejected the development, implementation and deployment of the CCMS, which was moving out of control in a way none of us could support.”