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Courts Eye Tech Fund as Budget Tightens

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

  • Organization: Daily Journal
  • Source: CALegalAdvocates >

Dipping Into Pot Would Delay New Case System By Matthew Pordum Daily Journal June 15, 2009 SACRAMENTO –

As the budget gap grows, the Administrative Office of the Courts has abandoned its opposition to dipping into technology funds to balance the budget - but it's still trying to protect court construction funds. Administrative Director of the Courts Bill Vickery said the rollout of the court case management system - a single, statewide computer system meant to replace each county's individual system - remains important, but avoiding disruptions to the administration of justice takes precedent. The $1.1 billion program was expected to be up and running in 2010. The cuts would delay the project for up to three years. Vickery said the Legislature has indicated it would put the computer system on "life support," setting aside $100 million to fund the remaining software development and to deploy it in one large court and one small court in the state. The courts rely on computer systems that are outdated or the verge of crashing, Vickery said, but those problems pale in comparison to the budget crisis. The court system is now facing $414 million in cuts, as a result of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's May Budget revision. Prior to the revision, the courts faced a $245 million deficit. "With additional $168 million in cuts, we realized that we had to dip into the CCMS money," Vickery said. "We really have to do everything, look everywhere we can to make sure those cuts are not pulled from the primary court operations budget." Vickery said the idea of closing the state's courts one day a month, which had been the centerpiece of the AOC's plan, still has not been approved by the Legislature. But he added that avoiding the closures, which are projected to save $100 million, is unlikely.

The Legislative Analyst's Office has recommended taking funds earmarked for court construction and maintenance to offset court expenditures for two years. The SB 1407 Fund is projected to produce $275 million in revenue for 2009-10 and is expected to continue to increase annually. Vickery said he's concerned that if the funding source money is diverted for operational costs, it will never be returned to its original goal of construction and maintenance. "If at the end of the day the courts have no other solutions, then we will obviously have to look at that money," Vickery said. "But our position right now is there is a critical need to improve the facilities of our courts today and in the future. There is certainly a fear that none of the projects on the table would go ahead and that funding in the future would just be absorbed by the state's general fund."

Vickery said he is also supporting taking $13 million from the "improvement fund," which is designated for trial courts facing emergency fiscal problems and another roughly $20 million from the court's "modernization fund," which is used for staff education and court operational support. Diverting funds from the modernization fund would require authorization from the Legislature. The court construction fund is designated for the construction and maintenance of 41 courthouses in 35 counties across the state. In a letter sent to the Legislature's Budget Conference Committee last week, a coaltion of labor unions and the California Sheriff's Association suggested an alternative court funding proposal that includes taking $50 million from the court construction fund that Vickery wants to save. They also proposed closing the courts for only one half-day a month and increasing security fees and civil filing fees, which together add up to $106 million in savings and new revenues. Additionally, their proposal calls for a 10 percent reduction in AOC employees' salaries and taking $181 million out of the technology fund.

The issue of raising civil filing fees will prove to be a contentious one, as the Consumer Attorneys of California and the California Defense Council have already called on the Legislature to avoid such measures. In a letter to the Budget Conference Committee, the groups reminded lawmakers that the passage of SB 1407, which significantly increased filing fees, was done with the guarantee that there would be a three-year moratorium on future increases. Another increase would greatly limit the "ability of plaintiffs to receive compensation and for defendants to respond to lawsuits," they wrote. Nick Warner, legislative director for the California Sheriff's Association, helped devise the alternative court funding proposal, said it's his sense that the "Legislature wants to mitigate the impact of court closures." Warner said that while he believes the desire to protect the court construction fund is "noble and just" because many of the facilities across the state are dilapidated, the state of the budget is too critical.

"The question is one based on being practical," Warner said. "Do we build new courts while we are closing ones across the street? We are working to figure out how to prevent stopping construction that is already underway, but we believe there is a soft spot in the funding that could help close the budget gap while only delaying some projects." Michael Belote, chief lobbyist for the California Judges Association and the California Defense Counsel, said the budget gap is too big to solve with any single measure. "The likelihood is there is going to be a package of remedies," Belotte said. "The solution isn't going to be just court closures or dipping into CCMS or diverting SB 1407 funding, but it's going to be a variety of things and that's virtually a certainty."

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