LOS ANGELES (AP) — A glimmer of hope has emerged for California’s financially besieged court system with two legislative committees recommending restoration of $100 million in budget cuts to trial courts across the state.
But a spokesman for the state finance department suggests that it is nowhere near a done deal, and the ultimate decision will be in the hands of the governor.
Sen. Noreen Evans, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said she’s optimistic that both houses will come together on a proposal that will win the approval of Gov. Jerry Brown when he receives the legislature’s final budget plan due June 15.
“I hope he will agree to stop the destruction of the state’s judiciary,” she said.
The proposed restoration of $100 million is not a total solution for what has been lost, she said.
“It won’t restore all the dollars, but it’s going to stop the bleeding,” said Evans.
Evans, D-Santa Rosa, has been a passionate advocate for court funding in a time when staff cutbacks and court closures across the state have taken a toll on accessibility to justice for citizens.
She said she is optimistic that the governor will respond to a very strong message from legislators.
Retired Shasta County Superior Court Judge Steven Jahr, now administrative director of the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts, said more negotiations are ahead on the $100 million proposal. “We have every hope it will pass,” he said.
The figure is small compared to net budget cutbacks of $500 million that have hit the state’s courts since 2008. Jahr said.
“It will be a challenge for courts to restore the levels of access that previously existed,” he added.
Both he and Evans said they have heard from the court’s “customers,” who travel long distances to reach an open courthouse and then face long lines when they get there. Some courts have been forced to close as early as 2:30 p.m.
Jahr said that State Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye has had productive conversations with Brown.
But the outlook for the new plan is not all rosy. H.D. Palmer, deputy director of the state’s Department of Finance, said the legislative proposal could still fail.
“Broadly speaking, the administration feels we can’t repeat the mistakes of the past by committing the state to higher levels of spending than the budget can sustain,” he said.
Palmer pointed out that the governor’s revised budget submitted this month did not include additional funding for courts.
“We’re early in the process,” he said. “We’re not at the point where there is a final budget.”
Before that point is reached, some courts will be continuing on the required slash and burn path that has been mandated by constricted budgets.
The Los Angeles Superior Court system, the largest in the state, plans court closures and staff layoffs in June to save $56 million.
Presiding Superior Court Judge David Wesley said he sees the legislative proposal as “a promising start” but it’s not a cure-all.
“I wish we could cancel the pending layoffs. We cannot,” he said.
If the $100 million is restored, it would be allocated among 58 different courts across the state. Wesley said Los Angeles would receive perhaps $30 million in the next fiscal year, perhaps enabling the rehiring of some employees.
“I hope and trust,” he said, “that passage of this increase will prove to be the beginning of the end of the budget devastation of the California courts.”
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