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SACRAMENTO — Gov. Gray Davis wants to raid a fund that is vital to court modernization to help cover his bets in a complicated gamble over California’s financial future. If legislators approve Davis’ plan, the fund — which is estimated to be $80 million at the end of this year — would go into the state’s general fund as a loan. The governor’s office has told the courts that the state will pay it back with interest. The fund was established Jan. 1 and is fed by an increase in filing fees that went into effect at the same time. The courts are counting on the money to pay for the transfer of court facilities from county to state ownership and plan to dip into it for the first time in 2004-05. According to Christine Hansen, finance director for the Administrative Office of the Courts, the money was not earmarked for anything in 2003-04. The fund was just supposed to sit and grow, so the AOC would have a large kitty when it takes on the financial burden of owning and maintaining 451 court buildings in California’s 58 counties. “We’ve been told they will repay it,” Hansen said. “As long as it gets repaid — and repaid right away — we’ll be OK.” William Vickrey, administrative director of the courts, said although he understands the state’s dire need for money, he’s concerned about what could happen if California’s financial health continues to decline and the state doesn’t pay back the loan in time. “We would like to see a date certain for payback,” Vickrey said. He also pointed out that the legislation that created the fund last year, SB 1732, requires that administrators hit some specific dates regarding court ownership. Vickrey wonders what the courts are expected to do if the money isn’t there. More broadly, Vickrey said he’s also worried about the state’s practice of leaning on the courts in tough times. Last year, a budget bill jacked up filing fees to raise money for the general fund, forcing court administrators to reduce the amount of money they hoped to get from fees. “I’m concerned about our ability to provide stability in operations of our justice system,” Vickrey said. “To the extent that we shift limited revenues to pay for other branches of government, we end up making the court system more vulnerable and [jeopardize] public access to courts in good financial times and bad financial times.” The courts were informed of the plan just this week. The governor announced his revised budget plan Wednesday. The proposal for the courts took up only two of the 100 pages of revisions released by the governor’s Department of Finance, reflecting the fact that the court system constitutes only about 2.5 percent of the state’s overall budget. Banking on the future is the hallmark of Davis’ new plan, which is an update on the preliminary budget he released in January. After getting feedback from Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature, Davis said he now wants to cut less and borrow more to fill in the state’s estimated $38.2 billion deficit over at least two years instead of one. In order to make it all work, Davis said he needs three things: the budget to pass by the June 30 deadline, a temporary sales tax hike and legislators to adopt structural reforms to avoid crises in the future. “Unfortunately, there was no escaping these difficult choices,” Davis said at a Capitol press conference. Aside from the loan, the governor’s revised plan gives a small perk to the courts. The January budget did not set aside money for some mandatory court costs, including court staff retirement and workers’ compensation. Davis now wants to devote $17.7 million in general fund money to pay those costs, which means the court won’t have to take money from elsewhere to fill those holes. The revised budget does not touch the can of worms Davis opened in January when he proposed saving money by allowing non-sheriff peace officers to bid on court security contracts. Sheriffs have resisted such talk in the past. Davis also didn’t revisit his idea to save money by allowing electronic reporting in some courtrooms, which court reporters have vowed to fight. Both those issues, as well as the loan, will be taken up as legislators wrestle over Davis’ budget in the coming weeks. Even if both of those policy shifts are approved, they won’t save as much money in the courts budget as Davis had hoped, Vickrey said. That’s because Davis depended on those savings to happen quickly. So far, legislators, court administrators and union officials have not come to any agreements. Echoing his concern about the facilities fund, Vickrey wonders if the courts will have to make up the savings expected with the policy shifts. Vickrey said he wants to continue working closely with Sacramento, “so that there’s not an unintended further reduction.” “The judicial branch,” he said, “is not an elective program that we fund when we have good times and unfund in bad times.”

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