Emergency measure to fund courts moves through the legislature

Staff Writer

As an urgency measure to fund California's courts winds its way through the legislature to Gov. Wilson's desk, long-term funding prospects remain hitched to welfare reform and labor issues.

Sen. Bill Lockyer, D-Hayward, said the trial court funding debate will be part of overall budget negotiations for the 1997-98 fiscal year.

The president pro tem of the Senate dropped his comprehensive measure to overhaul court funding last month. The bill included collective bargaining rights on noneconomic issues for court employees, but in the face of continued opposition by the governor, Lockyer abandoned that effort. The dispute with Wilson on the labor question led last year to an impasse over long-range court funding.

Instead, Lockyer pushed his urgency measure to appropriate $292 million in emergency funding to keep local courts open through June 30. The bill passed the Senate, was headed to the Assembly Judiciary Committee at the end of last month, and appeared to face no opposition in the Assembly or from the governor.

Without the funds, Chief Justice Ronald George said courts in 16 counties might be forced to lay off employees and shut down. The Judicial Council voted last month to allocate $869,200 in emergency funding to delay closures of those courts.

George, meanwhile, proposed a new rule of court to resolve the labor impasse. The proposal by the Judicial Council would guarantee court employees full collective bargaining rights on wage and non-economic issues, while taking other issues away from the bargaining table.

George expressed hope that Lockyer and Wilson could agree to such a compromise.

Lockyer also moved to link long-range court funding to welfare reform by suggesting that the counties fund the courts in exchange for the state taking over the cost of general assistance.

The counties currently pay the approximately $250-per-month general assistance provided to indigents who do not qualify for other welfare benefits.

As part of his new welfare proposal, the governor has suggested scratching the state law which requires counties to pay general assistance costs. Wilson also has proposed cutting off new welfare recipients after only one year of aid, less than the two years of continuous benefits allowed under federal law.

Unless he drops that component of welfare reform, Lockyer is threatening to hold hostage 40 new judgeships.

"We are not convinced the governor really needs those positions and we will prioritize them along with everything else," said Lockyer spokesman Sandy Harrison. "Whether they are more important than funding a bare bones safety net for the poorest California residents remains to be seen."

Wilson believes a one-year limit will force welfare recipients to actively search for a job as well as preserve their future eligibility for welfare in case of a job loss caused by recession.

Lockyer and other critics believe the proposal is both punitive and unrealistic because it is unlikely that California can create the estimated 700,000 new jobs required for those forced off the welfare rolls over the course of two years.

Although the current state budget provides for 21 new trial court judgeships, the Judicial Council has asked for an additional 40 new positions, saying the courts are swamped.

The council's emergency funding allocation last month "is another unfortunate example of the disparate impact of the current unstable funding structure on the trial courts," said William C. Vickrey, administrative director of the courts. "A permanent long-term funding solution is essential to ensure equal access to justice in our state."