After five round-the-clock days of legislative horse trading and stalemates, California's judicial leaders scored two key political victories Thursday as state lawmakers finally closed a $40 billion budget deficit.
Among the three-dozen bills legislators sent to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's desk to handle the shortfall was language that lets counties continue paying extra benefits to local judges. Proponents say that bill effectively overturns a 4th District ruling from October finding that only the state, not counties, can set compensation levels for judges.
Judicial Council leaders also secured authorization to build or rehabilitate 41 courthouses with $5 billion in bond money. The authority was stripped during last year's budget process after Assembly Republicans balked.
Neither bill is directly linked to the state's budget. Many of the three-dozen bills -- including some dealing with horse racing, state office furniture and election law -- were not. But legislative leaders said they were needed, either to stimulate the economy or attract enough Republican votes to garner a two-thirds majority approval for $12.5 billion in tax increases.
"It's not a celebration," Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, told reporters shortly after his house completed its work as the sun rose.
"Some of the last-minute agreements that had to be made to secure votes, some of it is part of the process, but some of it could be cured if you don't allow this two-thirds requirement to continue," he said.
Court leaders now have to wait to see whether they'll suffer a $100 million hit to their 2009-10 budget. The cut was included in the spending plan adopted early Thursday, but it included a major caveat: If California receives at least $10 billion in aid from the federal stimulus package, the planned cut will be rescinded. If the $10 billion threshold is reached, the Judicial Council may also receive $71 million toward 100 new judgeships.
Although the federal package was signed into law earlier this week, legislative leaders say they haven't been able to pinpoint yet how much money is headed to California.
The potential budget cut "is not good by any stretch," said Curtis Child, who heads the Administrative Office of the Courts' lobbying efforts. "But it's also a really tough year. We will certainly do the best we can, without reducing services, to the best of our ability."
Judges' campaign to keep their extra benefits was a bold move at a time when state leaders were drafting deep cuts to education and social services programs. But the Sturgeon-fix bill, so-called because it pretty much overturns Sturgeon v. County of Los Angeles , 08 C.D.O.S. 13183, actually turned out to be one of the least-controversial measures. It passed easily in both houses after its author, Steinberg, assured his colleagues that it was simply preserving the status quo.
An attorney for Judicial Watch, the conservative legal group that challenged Los Angeles County's practice of providing judges with up to $46,000 in perks annually, said he wasn't convinced that the bill would withstand legal scrutiny.
"If they say we're going to allow the counties to pay, I think [Sturgeon] prevents that," said Sterling Norris, who is still pursuing a preliminary injunction to stop Los Angeles County's payment to judges.
A PRIMARY CONSIDERATION
Some observers also questioned the legality of a last-minute bill that could create open primary elections in California. To obtain the budget vote of Sen. Abel Maldonado, a moderate Republican from Santa Maria, Calif., who lost a 2006 primary race for controller to a more conservative candidate, majority Democrats supported a measure to allow the top two vote-getters, regardless of party affiliation, to face off in the general election. Voters will consider the constitutional amendment in 2010.
A similar method in Washington state was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, although other top-two systems have been struck down. Political parties generally loathe such election systems and will likely challenge California's if voters approve it.
To survive a court review, top-two primary schemes must ensure that ballots don't mislead voters into thinking a political party backs a candidate when it doesn't, Loyola Law School elections expert Richard Hasen said. Hasen has worked with a group that sought to put a top-two primary measure on the ballot.
Hasen said late Thursday afternoon that it appeared California's measure would pass constitutional muster.
The governor said Thursday that he would likely start signing the budget bills into law Friday.