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SACRAMENTO — Chief Justice Ronald George traveled to the Capitol recently to make his annual money pitch for the judicial branch. He returned to San Francisco feeling less than hopeful. “I would not venture any kind of a guess as to how we’re going to fare,” George said. The trepidation comes as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger works on his budget proposal for the 2004-05 fiscal year. The Legislature recently approved going to the voters with Schwarzenegger’s plan to finance some of the state’s debt and cap future spending. But many in Sacramento believe those ideas still leave the state pretty much where it was when Gov. Gray Davis left office, minus, of course, controversial vehicle license fee funds. Combined with a continuing poor economy in the state and Schwarzenegger’s pledge not to raise taxes, that means more budget cuts are in the works. The judicial branch, like other areas of state government, has already experienced a series of cuts. George and other court leaders say those cuts severely curtail their plans to modernize the court system. Last year, only Los Angeles County had to lay off workers, but layoffs remain a possibility elsewhere. Besides those direct cuts, it also looks like the plan to finance courthouse rehabilitation and construction through a $4.1 billion bond measure will be put on hold for at least a year. Schwarzenegger’s plan is scheduled for release some time around Jan. 9, so George and the rest of the state don’t have much longer to wait. At the same time, Schwarzenegger could also announce mid-year reductions. A spokeswoman said the governor is not commenting on his pending budget proposal. At the recent meeting, George sat with Schwarzenegger and his aides for about 90 minutes, George said. They went over the courts’ $2.2 billion budget, and Schwarzenegger listened to George’s concerns during what the chief called “a very candid exchange.” George said few details emerged beyond the overall bad news. One encouraging sign, George said, is that Schwarzenegger does not appear to be relying on savings from some of the “politically difficult” cost-cutting plans that Davis had proposed in January. Davis wanted to save tens of millions of dollars by switching many courtrooms to electronic court reporting, and he wanted to open court security contracts to non-sheriffs law enforcement. While court administrators agreed both ideas would save money, they also realized that neither would fly very far. Indeed, court reporters and sheriffs — both powerful interest groups — said they would fight to maintain their monopolies. But it never came down to that. The ideas were rescinded when Orange County Sens. Joe Dunn, a Democrat, and Dick Ackerman, a Republican, came out with a new plan to raise court fees to cover the budget shortfall. Rather than revive old ideas, George believes Schwarzenegger will be more inclined to just cut the court budget and then let judicial administrators decide on the specific hits. “That would force us to consider a menu of options,” George said.

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