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SACRAMENTO — The Legislature’s failure to pass a budget on time is preventing the courts from collecting millions of dollars in new feesthat court administrators say are essential to the judicial branch’s health. The state’s finances have been in limbo since July 1, the start of the new fiscal year. Republicans and Democrats cannot agree on a budget and are at an impasse over whether to solve California’s estimated $38 billion deficit with spending cuts or tax increases. The state is planning to pay its workers — including most court employees — at least through August. But without a budget, the courts cannot assess new fees. Increases in everything from trial motion to probate filing fees were expected to raise about $150 million for the court’s $2.6 billion 2003-04 budget. Without the full amount, court officials fear the judiciary could run out of cash midway through the fiscal year. “We check in every day, and we’re trying to make sure that we continue to get the support in the Legislature,” said Christine Hansen, finance director for the Administrative Office of the Courts. “We don’t know what’s going to happen . . . so we’re just keeping our fingers crossed.” If that wasn’t bad enough, state funding for jurors and contractors working in the courts — everyone from appellate attorneys to child advocates to some interpreters — stopped last week. Some court systems, including San Francisco, plan on using reserves to pay people. It’s difficult to put a dollar amount on the fees lost while there’s no state budget because money from filing fees is somewhat cyclical. Even so, Hansen estimated the courts were losing about $600,000 in revenue each business day there’s no budget. As of today, that’s $5.4 million in lost revenue. That might not seem like a lot of money in a billion-dollar budget, but consider the financial toll the state budget crisis has already taken on the courts. The largest court system, Los Angeles County Superior, had to lay off some workers. Alameda County is considering closing the only courthouse in the city of Alameda. And in San Francisco, administrators recently scaled back the hours court is open to the public and have put off negotiations with its largest labor union because managers don’t know if they’ll have any money to pay for raises, said Gordon Park-Li, the S.F. court’s executive officer. The new fees are the linchpin of an agreement announced in May by Orange County senators Joseph Dunn, a Democrat, and Republican Dick Ackerman. The senators were responding to what they saw as short shrift given to the courts budget by the governor and Legislature. In January, Gov. Gray Davis proposed $133.7 million in unspecified cuts to the trial and appeal courts. Davis also wanted to save about $58 million by allowing non-sheriffs to bid on court security and by using some electronic court reporting. Those ideas were strongly opposed by sheriffs and reporters. The bipartisan agreement tossed those plans and instead proposed the $150 million in new fees. Court administrators embraced the plan as a tough but doable way to save the courts from more drastic cuts on top of hits taken in the last year. Now, along with the problem of the fee collection, the bipartisan agreement itself could be in jeopardy. In an effort to break the budget logjam, Senate Republicans last week released a proposal to get $2.7 billion in additional savings. The plan, following the GOP’s no-new-taxes line, scraps all the new court fees and instead would use $150 million from the general fund for the courts. The Senate is scheduled to discuss the Republican plan early this week. Although the spirit of the bipartisan deal is still there, the Republican plan goes against the spoken policies of Dunn and Ackerman, who both said they wanted to make the judiciary less dependent on the whims of the Legislature. The senators saw the new fees as insulating the judiciary from political tinkering with the general fund. Ackerman said the latest Republican proposal is still a work in progress. “We’re going to protect the judiciary, but these might not be the final numbers,” Ackerman said. An independent judiciary is “still a goal of both Joe and I.” Court fees are not nearly as controversial as, say, the sales tax proposed by Democrats, so the Republicans likely could agree to them without too much political fallout. “Sometimes you take positions further out so you can end up where you want to be,” said a source close to budget negotiations. “I’ve been beating on my caucus that the judiciary is not like Caltrans. It’s an independent branch of government, and we need to treat [it] accordingly,” Ackerman said. As political maneuvering over court fees continues, some court vendors are taking drastic steps to make sure they can continue working on cases — and putting food on their tables. According to Candace Hale, a Bay Area appellate lawyer who serves as legislative coordinator for California Appellate Defense Counsel, some of her colleagues have taken out second mortgages to cover the now-expected gaps in their pay that occur during a budget impasse. Until legislators agree on a budget, appointed counsel won’t get paid for any work they bill after July 1. Court administrators see that problem — which now occurs annually — as one of the major reasons why the pool of appellate attorneys has shrunk in recent years, from 1,500 to 1,000. Last year, when the state budget was delayed until September, appointed appellate counsel racked up more than $2 million in back pay, according to the AOC. Hale said the burden is even worse on death penalty lawyers, who have to front expenses for investigators and other costs. Earlier this year, Hale’s group tried to convince legislators to carry a bill that would allow appellate attorneys to get paid during an impasse, but was told that just wouldn’t fly during a budget crisis. “It’s very difficult to do anything about it,” Hale said. Meanwhile, courts are preparing to implement the new fees, assuming lawmakers agree to adopt the Dunn-Ackerman court budget. “Every day that the courts aren’t collecting, you’re eating into that $150 million” in fees, said Eraina Ortega, legislative advocate for the Judicial Council. Ortega said the Judicial Council tried to avoid the problem of lost fees in their talks with legislators, even suggesting lawmakers budget for only nine months’ worth of collections. If the hole gets too big, the courts would have to ask the Department of Finance for more money midway through the year, which the judiciary is “not likely” to get, Ortega said. “So it could very well end up being an additional unallocated cut for the courts,” she said. Related chart: Fee Increases

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