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California’s courts are already setting their budget priorities for the 2003-04 fiscal year — but judges shouldn’t expect a big pay hike in the proposed spending plan. The Judicial Council voted Friday to ask the governor for a $132 million increase in the state’s current $2.5 billion court budget, but that new money would cover only increases in costs for basic services such as security and to hire staff to manage court operations once handled by the counties. A long-awaited 8.5 percent pay raise for the bench was taken off the table because of the state’s worsening financial condition — a picture that isn’t expected to brighten much by the time the governor and Legislature consider the budget next year. New judgeships, technology upgrades, training and self-help centers for pro pers were also left on the cutting room floor. San Francisco Superior Court Judge Charlotte Walter Woolard, secretary-treasurer and vice president-elect of the California Judges’ Association, said she wasn’t surprised by the decision to hold off on pay hikes. “It would have surprised me if [Chief Justice Ronald George] had tried to push it forward,” she said. “The timing is not right with the budget crisis. Things are really tight. It does not mean he is giving up, but timing is everything.” The plan does include an additional $7.8 million for the Administrative Office of the Courts, much of which would be used to create 46 new positions to handle administrative and financial services once handled by counties. Tina Hansen, AOC finance director, said the prioritizing is necessary as the state of California faces a $23.6 billion budget deficit in 2002-03 and is expected to fall short an additional $51.6 billion over the next five years. The Judicial Council approved the AOC finance staff’s initial recommendations Friday with scant discussion. But council member and San Francisco Superior Court Judge Donna Hitchens stressed the additional AOC positions would directly benefit trial courts, which have been struggling with administration because counties are no longer required to manage court business operations. “We want to make sure we present this in a way that it’s related to direct services to the trial courts,” Hitchens said. The AOC wants to add four attorneys to provide legal services to the trial courts; roughly 39 finance staff positions to operate a Sacramento-based trial court treasury and accounting processing center; eight positions for technology implementation and support; four for labor-employee relations; and another position to establish a statewide procurement process. Before the council voted, Hansen and Assistant Finance Director Stephen Nash laid out a four-tiered system they created to determine priorities for the trial and appellate courts as well as the AOC. Only items in the first tier were approved by the council. If the council had approved all new spending, that would have amounted to a $199 million budget increase. Hansen said the AOC has yet to tabulate how the new spending would be divvied among individual counties. During Friday’s meeting, Chief Justice Ronald George also asked staff to see how the court can make sure outside vendors who provide legal services for indigent defendants are paid — despite the unsure state of the 2002-03 budget. George pointed out that indigent defense is constitutionally mandated, yet during a budget crisis court-appointed counsel are not paid and are often forced to dig into their own pockets. “With the budget crisis, state employees are being paid but outside vendors are not,” George said.

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