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A $4.1 billion bond to provide cash for new courthouses across the state appears dead for now — another victim of the worst budget crisis in state history. Introduced during the last legislative session, the measure was held up — along with other bonds — as legislators dealt with more pressing budget problems. The Judicial Council had hoped to reintroduce the bond during the legislative session that begins in January. But now that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has made a $15 billion bond part of his budget bail-out plan, legislators and court administrators say it’s looking more and more unlikely that the court proposal will get anywhere in 2004. The bond is part of the ongoing integration of California’s courts from 58 county systems to administration under one statewide umbrella. It would provide money for courts to renovate buildings and build new courtrooms, something presiding judges say is desperately needed. Already, the state budget crisis has forced the Judicial Council to scale back plans to modernize and make the courts more accessible. Administrative Office of the Courts Director William Vickrey said seismic improvements and security upgrades top the list of needed construction. But Vickrey said he’s “realistic” and knows that California’s other budget problems could force the facilities bond to the back burner for now. “There is no question the state’s larger financial problems � are complicating the ultimate solution, at least in terms of the timing,” he said. “It will make it more difficult to place something on next year’s ballot.” Vickrey hasn’t totally lost hope. He said the AOC would stay in touch with Schwarzenegger’s office and legislators to determine whether to go ahead. Besides the governor’s plan — legislators may decide by today if they want to go along with Schwarzenegger — there are two other expensive bonds heading for ballots next year, one on education and one on high-speed rail. “We have here the problem of a lot of bonds crowding each other out in the year 2004,” said Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Martha Escutia, D-Montebello, who carried the court bond in the last session. Escutia said she didn’t think it was a good idea to put something through the Legislature if it looked like voters would just defeat it. Like constitutional amendments, voters get the final say about whether to put the state into bonded debt. State Sen. Joe Dunn, an Orange County Democrat who worked with Republican Sen. Dick Ackerman earlier this year to protect the courts from budget cuts, said he wasn’t ready to write off the idea of a bond in 2004. Instead of a bond that is repaid with general fund money, as has been proposed, Dunn suggested looking at a bond paid with a dedicated source of funding. “The need is clearly there, and the idea of a bond is still on the table, but it will clearly be impacted by the events of the next 60 days,” Dunn said, as legislators and the new governor negotiate the state’s budget. Schwarzenegger wants to bump the education bond measure off the March ballot to make room for his bailout bond. Both education and high-speed rail would go in front of voters in November 2004. The Judicial Council also had wanted the court bond on that ballot. Besides the crowding-out described by Escutia, state Treasurer Phil Angelides this week said there was another problem with the governor’s bond idea. If voters passed all of the bonds that have been proposed, Angelides said the state would exceed a budgeting guideline that says only 6 percent of the general fund can go toward paying off debt. Angelides’ calculations did not include the court bond, which would push that percentage even higher. All this is bad news to presiding judges dealing with the daily problems of carrying out justice in inadequate buildings. “We hope that we might be first in line to get money,” said San Bernardino County Superior Court Presiding Judge J. Michael Welch. “All our facilities are functionally not big enough.” In San Bernardino’s main courthouse, which was built in the 1920s, court personnel have to work around pillars that obstruct sight lines in several courtrooms. That courthouse currently is undergoing a seismic retrofit that is paid for under a county-crafted plan using federal money. But the county’s explosive growth will require even more construction, Welch said. There are now 63 judges and 11 commissioners handling the business of a population of 1.8 million. The county needs 22 more judges, Welch said, and places for them to work. Statewide, 41 percent of counties do not have separate hallways to bring defendants into courtrooms, 25 percent don’t have space for juries, 78 percent have inadequate disabled access and 68 percent have poor security, said Kim Davis, acting director of the AOC’s office of court construction. She would like to see more local partnerships to fill in the construction gap created by the delayed bond, but conceded that counties have also been hit hard by the budget crisis. “The bond is essential for court facilities in the future,” Davis said. Aside from the court bond, the Judicial Council has scaled back other legislative plans because of the state budget crisis, just as it did at the beginning of this year. Today, at its meeting in Los Angeles, the council is expected to approve its legislative agenda, which includes only five items. The council will also consider a rule to implement new legislation from the last session that will make court budget information more accessible. And the council will discuss its three-year operational plan, which contains broad goals for the courts, including improving independence and accountability. The AOC has complained that the courts, although theoretically a separate-but-equal branch of government, actually don’t get adequate attention when legislators and the governor deal with the budget. Administrators would like to find more stable funding sources for the courts and have established a working group that will meet for the first time Dec. 16 to explore how to do that. For now, the only thing the courts have is filing fees. Those have been jacked up several times in recent years. Gov. Gray Davis used them to raise money for the state’s general expenses, and the Legislature also increased fees to patch a $150 million hole. Filing fees and criminal penalties were also supposed to raise seed money for a fund dedicated to improving court facilities. Later, the bond was to provide the bulk of facilities money, and fees would be reduced. But so far fees are not bringing in the money they were expected to, said the AOC’s Kim Davis. Court administrators also took an $80 million loan from the facilities fund to cover other budget shortfalls, but because of the filing fees shortfall, the money for that loan might not be available, said AOC Finance Director Christine Hansen. Without the bond, filing fees may be the only way for the courts to get construction money. Recent fee increases were not as high as a court facilities task force had originally recommended. Davis said administrators would like to begin discussing increasing fees to the task force’s level. However, lawyers and legislators, who already warn that high fees are curbing access to courts, would likely fight more increases. Sen. Escutia said she was opposed to raising fees again. As for how to help solve the courts’ budget problems, Escutia said she planned to meet with Chief Justice Ronald George before the Dec. 16 working group meeting and would talk to other legislators. “I just feel very frustrated that we can’t get this to take on the importance it deserves,” Escutia said.

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