California’s courts system feels budget constraints

When California voters passed a multibillion-dollar sales- and income-tax increase last year, they raised hopes of countless interest groups.

Almost all had seen sharp reductions as state revenues plummeted during the worst recession since the Great Depression, and they appealed to Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature for slices of the new revenue stream.

When the 2013-14 budget was completed in June, it was evident which money-seekers had won and which hadn’t.

Public schools, which had been the major selling point for the tax increase, were obvious winners. The California Constitution required schools to get a big share of the new money, and they did — albeit with a new method to calculate which school districts got what.

Advocates for health and welfare programs serving the poor, aged and ill were somewhat disappointed that while Brown and lawmakers stopped further cuts in their allocations, there wasn’t much in the way of compensation for previous reductions. Spending on prisons and other pieces of the criminal justice section of the budget likewise remained fairly static, as did support for colleges.

On paper, the nation’s largest system of courts looked like a winner, with a 61.3 percent increase in state support.

However, it was misleading since the boost basically restored a one-time cut in spending from the previous year, but left intact a $600 million-plus reduction from earlier years. The budget continued to tap into local courts’ financial reserves.

In brief, the budget did little to relieve the severe cutbacks in trial court operations that have been imposed in recent years, and thus did little to heal the sharp division within the state’s judiciary — judge vs. judge — over how the pain has been allocated.

The Alliance of California Judges, a rebel group, has charged that the state’s judicial bureaucracy has been spending too much money on itself, on a grandiose courthouse construction program and on a statewide case management computer system that proved to be inoperative, leaving trial courts starved for money.

The organization, teaming with court employee unions, has made some headway in seeking more independence for trial courts, despite opposition from Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and the rest of the judicial establishment.

The Cantil-Sakauye faction has argued that the courts’ problem is not how the money is distributed, but insufficient overall financing. And now it is muscling up to press that argument on the governor and the Legislature by creating its own advocacy organization called the Foundation for Democracy and Justice.

It will be finding itself not only jousting with the Alliance of California Judges but with every other budget stakeholder. The budget is a zero-sum game and every win for one group is a loss for another.

Dan Walters covers state politics for the Sacramento Bee.Dan WaltersOpinion

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