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Ignore court funding at your peril

By Sen. Joe Dunn

Sen. Joe Dunn, D-Garden Grove, chairs the Senate Budget Committee's subcommittee #4 on Legislative, Executive, Judiciary, Transportation & General Government.
Senator Dunn

It is 2 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon in October 2004, and half of the trial courts across the state are dark. Civil cases are not being heard. Clerks' offices are closed. Court staffs are reduced to part-time or have been furloughed. Morale is at an all-time low. Some did not believe it would really come to this. How could this have happened to the co-equal third branch of government?

Here's how. Let's begin with some history. California was faced with an unprecedented $38 billion budget deficit for the budget year 2003-04, running from July 1, 2003, to June 30, 2004. Many Democrats were struggling to save critical programs and services and many Republicans were refusing to raise taxes.

As a result, the ultimate budget resolution was a convoluted mix of unwelcome cuts, extensive borrowing, deferred payments and short-term fixes. It also included a continuing $8 billion "structural deficit" — which means the state's budget would spend $8 billion more next year than it brings in in revenue.

Now, let's turn to this coming year. Start with a $100 billion annual California state budget and the $8 billion structural deficit going into the 2004-05 budget, then:

  • Subtract $29 billion in special funds and bonds from the $100 billion that can only be used as earmarked. For example, gas taxes go into a special fund to pay for transportation projects and cannot be used to balance the budget.Voter-approved bonds to build schools cannot be diverted to balance the budget. That leaves $71 billion of the original $100 billion in which $8 billion in savings must be found.
  • Subtract another $32 billion from the $71 billion for K-14 (kindergarten through community college) funding promised by Proposition 98, a 1988 addition to the state constitution that established a minimum funding guarantee for K-14. It is political suicide for legislators to return to their districts having supported cuts to education. That leaves $39 billion in which to find the savings.
  • Subtract another $13 billion in federally mandated minimums (bare bones minimum funding) from the $39 billion for health and welfare programs, such as Medi-Cal, Healthy Families and services for the aged, blind and disabled. For every dollar we cut in these programs, the state loses between $2 and $3 in federal matching funds, which would only make the deficit worse. That leaves $26 billion in which to find the savings.
  • Subtract another $4.5 billion from the $26 billion, which is mandated by court order or federal requirements for developmental disabilities and mental health services, including such things as in-home care for the elderly. That leaves $21.5 billion in which to find the savings.
  • Subtract another $6 billion from the $21.5 billion for corrections, law enforcement and fire protection. It is also politically problematic for legislators to return to their districts having supported cuts to these services. That leaves $15.5 billion that is not legally or politically obligated to be spent.
  • That $15.5 billion is where the courts' budget comes from, along with many other state agencies, departments and functions. But $15.5 billion is not the end of the story. Remember we are starting with an $8 billion structural deficit.
  • Add $4 billion to the deficit in lost revenue resulting from Gov. Schwarzenegger's rescission of the vehicle license fee increase, also known as the "car tax." This money goes to local governments to pay for police and fire protection — local services that are funded by state dollars. That raises the deficit to $12 billion.
  • Add a $2 billion pension obligation bond that the legislature tried to borrow to pay the state's pension payments obligation, but a court recently ruled the bond needs voter approval and voided the bond. That raises the deficit to $14 billion.
  • Add from $2 billion to $11 billion in additional bonds to pay for last year's budget deficit that the courts may hold invalid. That raises the 2004-05 budget deficit to between $16 billion and $25 billion.

Now, we have $15.5 billion in discretionary funds, which includes the courts' and other budgets, in which to find $16 billion to $25 billion in deficits.

Where do we secure any — much less adequate — funding for the courts with a deficit this huge? Plus, not only do we have a negative balance, but what is outlined above does not include funding for state operations, the legislature, the governor and many agencies. And remember, the courts took substantial cuts this past year and had to swallow new and increased fees to make up for the shortfall caused by the cuts.

Gov. Schwarzenegger has reportedly assured the chief justice that he recognizes the importance of the judicial branch. However, there is no money on the table and let's be frank: the courts do not stand a chance of being fully funded when the alternative choice is funding firefighters, police officers, mental health clinics, children or the elderly.

Lawyers, judges, court employees, administrators — this is a call to arms — ignore it at your peril. We are facing a struggle for our very survival. It is going to take all of us all we can do to mitigate the coming devastation of the courts' 2004-05 budget.

What should you do? Educate yourselves and your colleagues. Get involved; do not be complacent. Participate through your local and statewide bar and lawyer associations in forming coalitions to strongly advocate for the courts with all members of the legislature. Be there whenever you are called upon to act.

This year, when you hear the courts' budget is in serious jeopardy, think about that day next October when the courthouse doors are closed and many staff have been laid off. It could happen. It could happen soon.

Sen. Joe Dunn, D-Garden Grove, chairs the Senate Budget Committee's subcommittee #4 on Legislative, Executive, Judiciary, Transportation & General Government.

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