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SACRAMENTO — While Gov. Gray Davis has some good ideas about how to save money in the trial courts, his budget proposal is risky and eventually could make things even worse for the judiciary, according to a just-released report by the Legislative Analyst’s Office. That’s because Davis’ proposal to reduce and realign the trial court system’s $2.2 billion budget relies heavily on the unknown, the LAO report says. The LAO is a nonpartisan agency whose budget analysis — issued Wednesday — will be used by legislators as they negotiate with the governor over the budget. “Overall, we think that [his proposals] have merit, but there’s a pretty high degree of uncertainty with regard to the savings in a number of the proposals. If [those] savings don’t materialize, the courts will have to make more significant reductions,” said Greg Jolivette, director of the LAO’s criminal justice section. Probably the best example of Davis’ risk-taking is his proposal to raise civil and criminal fees, the LAO says. Davis wants to add a $20 court security fee to civil filings and criminal fines, which were already hiked twice last year. He also wants to increase trial motion fees by $10 and more than double appellate filing fees, from $265 to $630. But administrators can only estimate the amount of money generated by fees. If the figures fall short, general fund backfill would have to rescue the courts’ budget. That would jeopardize other state and local programs, according to the report. William Vickrey, administrative director of the courts, said current fee projections are conservative. “Certainly … making accurate projections on fee revenues is always difficult,” Vickrey said. “Filings change radically based on other factors in society that we have no control over.” Vickrey said he’s worried about the timing of a budget bill. Each week after July 1 that Sacramento takes to wrangle an agreement is another week the courts go without income from higher fees. The LAO report also highlights a common concern: that higher fees make it more difficult for low-income families to use the courts. Improving accessibility and modernizing the judiciary have been the main goals of the Judicial Council for several years. But where the late 1990s saw profound changes in the trial courts — unification and state control — the current budget disaster threatens to slow down that work. The LAO looked at Davis’ other ideas: � Instead of paying for court security with the general fund, Davis has proposed funding the $300 million needed with a sales tax increase. He also would save $22 million by allowing non-sheriff peace officers to bid for court contracts. The LAO says even more money could be saved if private security companies are allowed to bid too. That idea likely will be met with hostility by sheriffs statewide, especially in places like San Francisco, where courts and jails are among the sheriff’s main duties. � Davis wants to give the Judicial Council leeway to cut $116 million beyond his specific proposals through so-called unallocated reductions. While that’s only 5 percent of the trial court budget, the LAO says it’s still a lot of control to be handed to the council. “Our general concern with unallocated reductions is that it removes the Legislature from the decision-making process,” says the LAO report. If that’s going to happen, the LAO says, the Administrative Office of the Courts should tell legislators about their specific plans for reducing their budget — especially how it will minimize the “negative impact” on family and civil courts. Because much of the criminal side is mandated by law, budget cuts more often impair family and civil sections. Vickrey said such unallocated cuts are usually left up to local courts because they have the best sense of what to trim. � The governor hopes to save $36.5 million by using electronic reporting for some proceedings and giving the courts ownership over all transcripts. Although it likes Davis’ idea — 46 states have replaced people with electronic reporting for certain hearings — the LAO wants more details. Among other things, it wants to know how much staff is needed to monitor the electronic equipment and manage the transcripts made from recordings. Stenographers blocked previous efforts toward electronic reporting. Vickrey said his office will continue working with “everybody” — court reporters, sheriffs, legislators and Davis — to figure out “how we can implement [changes] in a way that doesn’t impose draconian impact on anyone.”

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