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California court officials were anticipating grim budgetary news, and they got it. On Friday, Gov. Gray Davis released a state budget calling for nearly $200 million in cuts by the judiciary — cuts that court officials say will hurt, but which they hope to achieve without resorting to layoffs. “The level of reductions proposed in the budget is certainly a lot higher than we had advocated for,” said William Vickrey, the administrative director of the courts. But, he added, they are “not necessarily inappropriate in light of the extreme problems the state is facing.” Added Vickrey, “We will do everything we can to avoid laying off staff.” Davis’ budget sets a $2.8 billion budget for the judicial branch of government — $344.8 million for the Supreme Court and other appellate branches, $3.1 million for the Commission on Judicial Performance, $2.2 billion for the trial courts and $253.8 million for judges’ retirement costs. The governor’s cost-saving proposals for the judiciary include having the trial courts seek bids for courthouse security, shifting drug court administration to the counties, implementing electronic court reporting, instituting a security fee of $20 per court filing and increasing trial motion fees from $23 to $33. In addition, $300 million in general fund savings is expected through the dedication of a portion of a proposed 1-cent sales tax hike to improve court security. The governor’s other planned sources of revenue are an increase in cigarette taxes and an increase in income taxes on the wealthy. The proposals are part of Davis’ plan to offset a $35 billion statewide budget deficit. “This task will not be easy,” the governor said in announcing the budget. “All the choices before me were hard. But they had to be made to balance our books.” The governor, however, veered away from proposing a tax on general services, including legal services — an idea that had been bandied about in recent weeks. “The reason the governor preferred the sales tax and higher income [tax] is that these are the same tools [former Gov. Pete] Wilson used in the early ’90s to weather fiscal downturn,” said Hilary McLean, a Davis spokeswoman. “[And] the cigarette tax is what the governor proposed last year.” It’s probably just as well. The idea wasn’t popular among lawyers and might have met with serious resistance. “This would be extremely discriminatory against consumers and unfair in the personal injury context,” said Bruce Brusavich, president of the Consumer Attorneys of California. Brusavich sounded a conciliatory note on another hot-button budget issue for the plaintiffs bar — filing fees. Though he called the proposed increases “unfortunate,” he said “the Consumer Attorneys understands the magnitude of the problem and wants to be part of the solution.” Vickrey said the governor’s proposed reductions in the judiciary are especially painful, considering that the courts have already absorbed another $200 million in cuts in the current budget year. “The reductions for the judicial branch, where there are not many discretionary programs, are very difficult to achieve,” he said. Chief Justice Ronald George was in San Diego handling confirmation hearings for newly named appeal court justices and wasn’t available for comment. But Vickrey, hosting a telephone press conference attended by several other high-ranking court executives, tried to be upbeat. While some trial courts have already laid off employees, he said, the judiciary hopes to avoid any further “significant layoffs,” even though the governor’s budget proposal eliminates 1,900 government positions — 1,500 of which are currently filled. Voluntary furloughs might be instituted, Vickrey said, but judicial executives will try cutting costs elsewhere first. For example, he said, trial court operating hours could be shortened, as could the working hours of clerks’ offices. The governor’s proposal to implement a $20 security fee for court filings is expected to generate $34 million in revenue, while increasing the trial motion fee by $10 could raise $1.2 million a year. Bidding for court security is expected to save $22 million, Vickrey noted, while going to electronic court reporting could cut $31 million. The latter proposal, which would require an act of the Legislature, could run into trouble. Court reporters, who have substantial legislative clout, fought off the last attempt and would likely try to do so again. “Official reporters are in for the fight of their lives,” says a statement on the Web site of the California Court Reporters Association. “Are we going to let them exploit the shortage and the budget problems,” the statement continues, “and open the doors to electronic reporting, first in court and then in depositions?” Vickrey said he expects a fight. “I think it is an absolute certainty that the court reporters would be opposed, as they always have been,” he said. “And I think it will take a lot of work and cooperation to make some change.” The overall impact of the budget reductions will be felt differently from county to county, Vickrey said. Besides furloughs, layoffs and cutbacks in operating hours, he said, there likely will be hiring freezes and reduced travel budgets. Those things are already happening in most courts. Alameda County Superior Court Presiding Judge Harry Sheppard said Friday that a hiring freeze was imposed in his county in September and purchasing procedures were revamped in October so that all requests go to a central location for approval or disapproval. In addition, courtrooms are shutting down daily at 4:30 p.m. and the clerk’s office closes at 4 p.m. “We don’t like doing this, because it impacts the public,” Sheppard said, “but we can’t be all things to all people unless we can pay for it. “We don’t have any choice,” he added, “because we want to be able to operate our court system in the fourth quarter of this year. So we have to make cuts now.” Vickrey said each county court system could face an 8 percent reduction in funding. One surprise in Davis’ budget was a proposal to shift the administration of drug courts to the counties and away from state supervision — seemingly in direct contradiction with the chief justice’s attempts to operate all courts and facilities under the state’s umbrella. Drug court judges were surprised by the news, but wouldn’t comment without seeing more details. Vickrey, however, downplayed the proposed transition. “Most of the money for drug courts is money that is provided to the local government already,” he said, “so when we talk about drug courts, most of that money is to provide support to local drug programs at the local level.” He added that most state money for drug courts is already passed along to counties, leaving a “very small percentage” of drug court cash actually administered by the state.

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