SACRAMENTO (CN) - An overwhelming majority of California legislators voted to pass a trailer bill that would hold judicial branch bureaucrats accountable for their spending on a $1.9 billion IT project. If an independent audit finds the project is beyond saving, a Republican legislator asked, will her colleagues have the nerve to "shut it down."
With a vote of 68 to 8 on Thursday, the Assembly passed the bill requiring California's judicial administration to retain an independent consultant who would review the project annually and report back to the legislature with its findings. The reports are required to point out deficiencies in the project and make recommendations on how to address them.
The bill specifies that the computer system is not to be installed in any of the state's 58 trial courts until the review is complete, though the Administrative Office of the Courts hopes to begin installing it as early as this summer.
Assembly member Bob Blumenfield (D-San Fernando Valley) introduced the final version of Senate Trailer Bill 78, saying, "At its core this bill balances the need for improved cost controls in the administration of our courts with the constitutional requirements that courts operate as an independent and equal branch of government."
"However," Blumenthal added, "this bill is also intended to accomplish a simple objective to help ensure that our trial courts are not paying for cost overruns in the development of a new statewide computer system by the Administrative Office of the Courts. The cost overruns have created an enormous outcry."
The Court Case Management System has been a source of controversy and contention in the judicial branch, with many trial judges criticizing the AOC for funding the computer project with money intended to keeps courts open. Now the agency is supposed to pay for the independent review with money it had earlier taken from trial court funds to pay for the IT project itself.
A report released last month from the Bureau of State Audits revealed that judicial bureaucrats had mismanaged the project from its beginning almost ten years ago, and that it was in serious danger of failure. The bill would also require a thorough audit of the agency's "revenues, expenditures and fund balances" to be performed by either the Department of Finance or the Bureau of State Audits.
Assembly member Luis Alejo (D-Watsonville), who had urged legislators last month to prohibit the AOC from using any additional trial court money to fund the project, calling it a waste of taxpayer money, said during debate that the bill gave the agency "the opportunity to fix this," and "addresses not all but the core of our concerns."
"This project has had many flaws and mistakes since its inception until now," Alejo added, "and the AOC has the opportunity to correct it. As we all know, last year our courts had to undergo furloughs that created severe access to justice problems for the people of our state."
Assembly member Diane Harkey (R-Dana Point) called the trailer bill a "good resolution," and a "collaborative effort with the judicial system," but she had reservations.
"This is truly one bill although it does not go nearly far enough, that at least makes some incremental changes," Harkey said. "The cost overruns are horrendous, so this is a good thing, at least we're going to get a watch."
"But my question would be later, once we get the report that tells us in fact that we've got problems with this," said Harkey, "will we have the nerve in this body to shut it down?"
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