Alliance Budget Updates & Judge White speaks with legislators

Posted on May 29, 2013

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May 28, 2013

By now you have heard that last Thursday the Assembly and Senate Budget Subcommittees voted to provide an additional $100 million to the trial courts this year, and raise the reserved funds limit from 1% to 12%. The Department of Finance made it clear that the Governor opposes this increase and change. The Legislature stated they want the funds to go to reopening closed courthouses and suspending plans to close additional ones, to restoring self-help services and to increasing public operating hours.

Assemblyman Reginald Jones-Sawyer, the chair of the subcommittee, told judicial branch leaders who attended the Capitol hearing that the Judiciary was on “probation.” Administrative Director Steven Jahr promised the Assembly panel that the money would be spent transparently and efficiently. “You have my word on it,” he said.

However, before the “ink was even dry” on the proposal, and in spite of Director Jahr’s promise, persons at the highest level of the Judicial Council secretly lobbied legislators to reduce the additional revenue to the trial courts in favor of further funding for the appellate courts and possibly the Judicial Council itself. As a result, the Senate at first agreed to reduce the allocation to $94 million, to allow $6 million directed to the appellate courts. We now understand that this reduction will be reversed. The full $100 million will be specifically directed to the trial courts. The appellate courts need additional funding, but the emphasis right now must be the restoration of trial court funding and public access. We must have open courtrooms.

Of course, we all know that $100 million of additional funding will not stop the curtailed court operations that have been planned. Lost in this public debate is the fact that there are funds available within the existing branch funding that need to be redirected to the trial courts. Alliance President Judge Steve White forcefully made this point appearing before the legislative committees. He stated, “If there is $150 million within the budget for the trial courts to borrow, then there is $150 million at least to redistribute.” Judge White’s statement met with rousing applause from the audience. You may view Judge White’s appearance at this link.

We attach two documents that we ask you to evaluate. One is our own summary of some budgeted funds that we think need reevaluation for possible redirection to trial court operations. We also attach a report dated February 2013 that reviews AOC staffing. We ask you to consider, for example, whether it is truly necessary for the AOC to employ 73 people in the Judicial Education department. Why are there 156 people still employed in the AOC IT division in light of the total collapse of the CCMS project? Given the financial crisis facing our courts, we believe the Legislature must demand a reevaluation of our branch priorities.

The Alliance directors will be in Sacramento next week. We plan to forcefully argue that the budget include additional money for the trial courts from existing resources, in addition to any new General Fund revenue that is proposed. In this way, even if new money does not materialize, particularly in the face of the Governor’s opposition, the trial courts will still receive some relief this year.

We also provide a report of the budget hearings by Maria Dinzeo of Courthouse News Service.

Very truly yours,

Judge David Lampe
Executive Director

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Courthouse News Service

5/24/2013

Legislature Votes to Restore $100 Million to Calif. Courts
By MARIA DINZEO

SACRAMENTO (CN) – Chastened by the fury of court employees negatively impacted by layoffs, court closures, and years of repeated cuts to funding for trial courts, the California Legislature voted to restore $100 million to the judicial branch’s budget.

The money will be an ongoing addition to the budget, but it comes with a few caveats:

It must be used specifically for keeping the trial courts running, and officials from the Administrative Office of the Courts must account for the money received both before and after it is spent.

Reginald Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles), chair of the Assembly budget sub-committee, said the Administrative Office will be required to submit a report each August – before it receives the money — outlining its spending plans, and then later they, “will come back to us to show they did what they said they were going to do.”

He added, “Whatever they’ve cut, these monies are specifically to go to augmenting or hopefully reversing all of that.”

The unanimous vote was preceded by a lively period of public comment punctuated by bursts of cheers and applause.

Cheryl Clark, an Alameda court worker who drew some of loudest cheers, said, “Where has all this money gone? Why do we have to close at 2:30 [p.m.]? I’m with everyone else — accountability for the AOC. But if they’re not going to be accountable, give the money to the trial courts and let us be responsible for us. We can bypass all of that.

“The money is well needed,” Clark continued. ” And … if they’re not going to account for the money, it needs to be taken away from them and let the courts take care of it- each court equally.”

The court workers, many of whom wore yellow t-shirts emblazoned with the words “Public Safety First, Keep LA Courts Open,” called on lawmakers to hold the central court bureaucracy accountable for the spending of the new funds.

Paris Fox, an employee at the Alameda County Superior Court, said it disheartening for him, “as a court employee” and “servant of the people of the state of California” to tell people the court closes at 2:30 p.m., while at the same time acknowledging a new, $2.3 billion courthouse is being built nearby – a reference to a controversial courthouse construction project in Long Beach.

“People don’t understand that,” said Fox, whose comments were greeted by loud applause from other speakers. “So I hope and pray that as the money goes from this body, the legislature, which is trusted by the people of the state, to this body in front of me, the Administrative Office of the Courts, the one word that is in my head here is accountability. And transparency.”

The court workers’ comments were not lost on the lawmakers, who for years have been listening to allegations of misspending and waste, while local trial courts, starved for funds, have been shuttering courthouses and laying off staff.

The judiciary is still reeling from the failed implementation of a new Court Case Management System, a project that was terminated last year after it became mired in cost overruns and other issues, and was widely criticized by trial judges and court employees.

Assembly member Diane Harkey (R-Orange County) said the AOC’s handling of the judicial branch’s money has been “almost a constant controversy” in her five years in the Legislature.

“I’m not here to harass anybody but what I’d like to see, seriously, is a real communication such that we get the money to the trial courts. I do think things are a little bit better than they were under the previous chief justice, that being said there’s just so much more to go.

I would hope there would be some way that we could get more funding to the courts and less to the administration,” Harkey said, drawing applause from the court workers in the audience.

She asked new AOC Director Judge Steven Jahr for a response. “I know you’re not amongst friends here,” she said.

“I must respectfully disagree,” Jahr answered. “I think the comments that have been made throughout the audience today have been more illustrative of the problems we face in the trenches than anything I could have said.”

He added, “It’s easy to find boogeymen. When you take away the amount of money that had to be taken away on account of the extraordinary fiscal crisis we had you’re going to expect breakdown. It’s my commitment to you to see that that is done properly, efficiently and transparently.”

Jones-Sawyer added his own frustrations about the bureaucracy. “I came from the City of Los Angeles. I was director of real estate. I used to have to deal with a group called the AOC in dealing with commercial property. It was probably one of the worst experiences I ever had with another governmental entity in my life.”

He went on to recall his experience trying to rent space in the Long Beach courthouse building, characterizing it as, “painful, to say the least.”

“What I can tell you now, as someone who has been highly critical of the AOC, is that Judge Jahr has been very cooperative, open and I think he is the first link at us turning this ship around for the courts, especially when it comes to accountability,” he said.

“Everyone on both sides of the aisle firmly believes that the court needs more money,” Jones-Sawyer added. “We’d like for this $100 million to go toward beginning to restore self-help services, extend business hours, begin the process of reducing delays and adjudicating cases and most important, reopen closed facilities or suspend anticipated closures.”

The audience again erupted into cheers.

With that, the committee chairman turned to Jahr, saying, “You’re kind of on probation now yourself, you and the court system. This is your opportunity to show the legislature and the governor that you can spend those dollars wisely. Once there is some greater transparency and accountability not only will this body look to giving you more money in the future, we will find more because there’s a comfort level to make sure the money gets down to the trial courts.”

In addition to the increased funding, the committee voted on Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to increase the amount of money courts can carry in reserve. His original plan was to sweep more of the courts’ fund balances, leaving them with only one percent reserves.

The proposal approved by the committee would increase the amount of funds a trial court can carryover from one fiscal year to the next to 12 percent.

In the Senate, meanwhile, a budget sub-committee chaired by Senator Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) also voted for the $100 million restoration and the 12 percent carryover.

“This has been a very big concern of the entire legislature in the last year, how we adequately fund the third branch of government, recognizing that justice delayed erodes competence in democracy,” Hancock said.

The measures passed despite warnings from the Department of Finance that revenue projections were still tenuous.

But Hancock also had some sharp words for the AOC on the new Long Beach courthouse, scheduled to open this year. The Senate sub-committee approved $53.6 million for the first “service payment,” to be taken out the judiciary’s construction budget. These payments are estimated to cost $2.3 billion over the life of the 35-year contract.

As many have argued that private financiers have made money off the state on a one-sided contract, the committee’s approval came with more restrictions on future public-private partnerships.

“That was a fiasco. That was done at the end of the last administration but its going to cost the people of California a lot of money,” Hancock said. “We don’t want to see this happen again, so we need rules. I’m sorry, we need to be more careful with our money and we need to do it right.”

The Assembly committee also voted 3-2 to approve the first payment, but not before Judge Steve White of Sacramento Superior Court told committee members that they should not approve any payments without first looking at the state’s liability.

“Were this matter to be audited or were there to be an analysis of the purported business plan of this courthouse you would find the state got pantsed and the private players got rich,” Judge White said. “I strongly suggest that this body look at whether the state has any liability whatsoever.”

He added, “It would be a mistake and a misuse of state monies to pay for this without getting the parties back to the table. Because of this project some four courthouse construction projects are on ice and some 11 others are not even in line anymore.”

Alliance of California Judges
P.O. Box 2877, Sacramento, CA 95812

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May 22, 2013
Alliance Budget Proposal

Just before the Governor’s updated budget proposal last week, I sent you a message concerning the 2013-2014 Judiciary budget. As we anticipated, the Governor’s proposal does not include any restoration of the budget cuts our branch has suffered. As we also predicted, the Speaker of the Assembly has proposed unspecified additional trial court funding, coupled with strict demands for transparency and accountability.

With these developments, the Alliance is prepared to advance a budget proposal for the trial courts. We will ask for an on-going restoration of $475 million to the trial courts. To this end, we propose $275 million of new General Fund support, and $200 million of redirected funds from within the existing Judiciary budget. It is very clear that a major impediment to restored funding is the fact that the Judicial Council and the AOC wasted hundreds of millions of dollars on the failed CCMS project, mismanaged construction projects, and overfed the AOC into its present state of bloat.Because of these failures, funds otherwise available for trial court operations have been lost. After the Governor’s budget proposal was released, the Chief Justice advised that the Department of Finance was preparing trailer bill language authorizing trial courts to “borrow” up to $150 million from other judicial branch funds.

The trial courts should not be required to borrow money that should have been theirs in the first place. If there is $150 million available to borrow, then there is at least that amount available within the existing budget to be redirected.We believe that there is room for significant contribution to restored trial court funding within the existing Judiciary budget. By way of only one example, the State Court Facilities Construction Fund shows a Reserve for Contingencies at the end of this fiscal year of $128 million. When the trial courts are relegated to a 1% reserve balance limitation, we see no need to keep these other funds reserved given the current crisis.

In the run-up to the budget crisis the AOC and Judicial Council steadily and increasingly moved resources from the trial courts to fund AOC and Judicial Council priorities. And when the Judiciary’s budget was slashed because California’s economy was upended by the worst recession in four generations, the disproportionate impact of those cuts fell upon the trial courts. This is why courts have been closing and judicial functions stymied throughout California. Without action by our co-equal branches of government, this decline will inevitably continue.

When the Judicial Branch and its Constitutional responsibilities are put at risk it is the responsibility of judges to stand up and step forward to meet these threats. It is not acceptable to sit by and defer to the AOC and the Judicial Council – because they are not the Judicial Branch and because they are part of what has brought us to this pass. The Alliance joins with those who seek a constructive solution to the funding and governance crises afflicting our branch of government.

Very truly yours,

Judge Steve White

President
Alliance of California Judges
P.O. Box 2877, Sacramento, CA 95812

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