The 2014- 2015 budget is now official. The trial courts will receive no general operational funding other than that proposed in the May Revise. The trial court budget will be only $160 million over last year’s funding, as follows: (1) $86.3 million for local operations, (2) $42.8 million to cover increases in employee retirement and health care benefits (rejecting any backfill for courts who pay the employee portion of retirement benefits), and (3) $30.9 million to cover approximately one-half of the fee revenue shortfall only recently reported by the AOC.
Some modest additional amounts are not for trial court general operations. The budget provides for some increases in state funding, security funding, funding targeted at “recidivism reduction," and $40 million in construction money paid to the Immediate and Critical Needs Account. Of course, the increase in ICNA funding is more than offset by the payment for the annual service fee ($54.2 million) on the Long Beach courthouse that the AOC mistakenly hoped would come from the general fund, not the court's budget.
There’s no way to spin or soft-pedal it: This budget is not good news for the courts. The amount provided is at least $137 million less than the trial courts need just to maintain current services. There are no more reserves. The trial courts of this state will need to reduce operational costs once again by millions of dollars.
The budget increase is less than a third of the $612 million boost that the Chief Justice requested in her “Three-Year Blueprint” for the judiciary, and it’s $83 million below what the Chief Justice said we need just to tread water. The bulk of the money is already spoken for. Much of it will go to cover increases in employee benefits and to compensate in part for the coming year’s $70 million shortfall in court fees—the shortfall that the Judicial Council claimed it had been “monitoring” all along. There’s nothing left with which to reopen mothballed courtrooms and shuttered courthouses.
We can expect more pain on top of the devastation of the last few years. Many counties can expect even longer lines at the traffic windows, even longer waits for trial dates, even higher stacks of files for our overworked clerks to process.
After the CCMS debacle and years of AOC doublespeak, we have little credibility with the other branches of government. The pleas of the Chief Justice and the AOC’s Office of Governmental Affairs are falling on deaf ears. Nobody is paying attention to them.
We need to start from scratch. The judges of this state must awaken to the fact that the current structure of trial court funding and administration is a failure. It is completely broken. We need to rebuild credibility and start over with new ideas. We need an independent voice in Sacramento not tied to the existing failed bureaucracy, capable of proposing a fresh start. The Alliance sponsored the forthcoming audit of the AOC. Judges need to embrace that audit rather than resist it. With the results of the audit expected before the end of this calendar year, judges will be equipped to propose the revisions we need to ensure adequate funding of the courts.
The Alliance will keep working with our allies in the Legislature to reform the funding mechanisms for the courts and judicial branch administration. If you want to join us, just respond to this e-mail.
Very Truly Yours,
Directors, Alliance of California Judges