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SACRAMENTO — Court employee unions urged legislators Tuesday to allow some sunshine on the sometimes secretive budget deliberations of the trial courts, arguing that openness is the best way to ensure money is well spent. Service Employees International Union, along with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, are sponsoring two bills that would affect how courts manage their budgets. Together, the unions represent about 16,500 of the 19,000 court employees in the state. Companion bills SB 129 and SB 144 were written by Sen. Martha Escutia, D-Montebello, chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which passed them Tuesday. Escutia, referring to court employees who could face layoffs, said that during the current fiscal crisis, budget talks have “personal implications.” Republicans and Democrats are still wrangling over next year’s state budget, but already the courts are facing severe cutbacks. Although Chief Justice Ronald George has assured employees that he is concerned about them and hopes to avoid more layoffs, the unions want to make sure their members don’t get the short end of the stick. “When it comes to money, we view ourselves as the public,” said Michelle Castro of SEIU. “Really what we’re trying to do with both of these bills is to provide more access.” Castro and other union leaders testified at the Senate Judiciary Committee meeting. Managers have already laid off employees in Los Angeles County, which has the largest superior court in the state. Last week, the court announced it was considering closing the court down for several days in order to save money. By opening up the budget procedure, the unions want to be able to check the work of number crunchers and the decisions of management. More knowledge would also give them a better negotiating position during contract time. SB 129 would require the Judicial Council to ask for comments on any proposed changes to its budget policies and only adopt changes at public meetings. It would also require the Administrative Office of the Courts to review court requests to transfer money between programs, something the unions believe is especially important during a budget crisis. The unions want to make sure, for example, that courts aren’t buying new carpet or painting walls at the same time they’re laying off employees, Castro said. The Judicial Council does not oppose SB 129. However, the council does have some concerns about the other bill, SB 144. That bill would open to the public all meetings dealing with the administration of the trial courts. Although the bill has an exception for judicial discussions, the council is worried that talks that should be private will get swept up in the new law. AOC senior attorney Michael Fischer said those exempted discussions include assignment of judges or assignment of cases to judges. The unions and court administrators have pledged to continue working together as the bills move through the Legislature. And there’s another measure that could affect access to the courts. Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, D-San Francisco, has reintroduced a broad constitutional amendment that would require that existing rights to public access be broadly construed and laws restricting access be narrowly construed. Burton’s bill passed the Senate last year but was held up in the Assembly. If passed by both houses, it would also need to be approved by voters. Open government advocates also have complained about the loss of financial oversight since the courts’ transition from county to state funding in the 1990s, as The Recorder described in a special report last summer.

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