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If a nearly $70 million cut to the judicial branch proposed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is implemented in next year’s final budget, courts could face severe cutbacks in hours and possible layoffs, court officials said. But Administrative Office of the Courts Director William Vickrey doesn’t want to even think about going there. Instead, he and others involved with court budgeting emphasized that the financial proposal released by Schwarzenegger on Friday is just a rough draft. They hope and expect that the final document, which isn’t due for several months, will be much kinder on the already struggling judicial branch. “While I am concerned about the potential impacts of this budget � at the same time I at least am optimistic that we are having meetings and discussions with them about how to address some of the issues that we have,” Vickrey said. First on the agenda will be mandatory cost increases that the governor apparently did not take under consideration while drafting his proposal. If he had, Vickrey believes Schwarzenegger would not have pitched the cutbacks included in his Friday release — a $9.8 million reduction to the AOC and appellate courts, and a $59 million decrease to trial courts. Additional costs the courts must pay in the next budget cycle include higher security fees as well as retirement and salary increases. Although it’s unclear whether Schwarzenegger misunderstood the impact of the mandatory costs or purposefully left them unattended, Vickrey said he’s confident the governor’s staff will think about them now as it continues work on the budget. Chief Justice Ronald George said Schwarzenegger was hampered by having to craft the budget so quickly. By the time he and Vickrey explained the mandatory cost increases to the governor’s staff, it was too late to influence Friday’s release. Besides the cuts, Schwarzenegger also suggested several policy changes he hopes will eventually save money in the courts. If it gets off the ground, the most controversial likely will be a proposal to give the AOC a stronger hand in contract negotiations between court employees and local court administrators. “This is a substantial change in direction from what we all just agreed on a couple of years ago,” said Michelle Castro of the Service Employees International Union. “Simply put, we don’t like it at all.” Castro said creating “more state bureaucratic bloat” seems to go against the slimming down of state agencies that Schwarzenegger seems to want. The SEIU represents about 14,000 of the approximately 18,000 court employees in the state. Along with the mandatory costs, court officials also have another problem that could carry over into next year. Because of a shortfall in revenue from filing fees, this year’s budget already has a $40 million hole. Ideally, rather than proposing cuts next year, Schwarzenegger could have suggested the Legislature approve backfill to cover the hole. But that looks very unlikely now. That’s because Schwarzenegger is grappling with a huge budget problem left over from the administration of ousted Gov. Gray Davis. To deal with an estimated deficit of about $22 billion, the new governor’s 2004-05 budget includes cuts to education, welfare, transportation — just about every state program — as well as higher fees in some areas, including state law schools. “Everyone has to come in and help. That is what we’re doing here,” Schwarzenegger said Friday as he explained his recovery plan. The governor refuses to raise taxes to solve a revenue shortfall, saying it’ll be bad for business. And his recovery depends on a $15 billion bond measure that will go before voters in March. That bond measure is one of the reasons some people involved in the budgeting debate think Vickrey and other court officials are being unrealistic when it comes to their chances to save the courts by dealing directly with Schwarzenegger. “I do not share the Judicial Council’s optimism on their ability to reduce [next year's] cuts,” said Sen. Joseph Dunn, a Democrat from Orange County. Dunn worked with Sen. Richard Ackerman, an Orange County Republican, last year after Davis proposed cuts even more drastic than what Schwarzenegger wants. Dunn and Ackerman persuaded the Legislature to raise court filing fees to cover a $150 million shortfall. Now, Dunn believes that the bigger picture could spell disaster for the courts. Dunn explained that, besides the bond measure — which isn’t exactly a shoo-in with voters — Schwarzenegger also assumes an increase in federal money and higher tax revenues. But if any of those don’t work out, and the governor continues to eschew higher taxes, then Schwarzenegger’s only choice will be to make even deeper cuts than he’s already proposing in state spending. Although the courts only account for about 2.5 percent of state spending, they’re a favorite target of legislators looking for cuts because there’s no risk of offending a powerful interest group, Dunn said. “I am concerned that the courts will be in the bull’s-eye for those additional cuts,” Dunn said. Dunn laughed when asked if he planned to “save the day.” What he will do, he said, is continue to work in the Legislature — which must approve the final budget — to make sure the courts don’t get short shrift. He encouraged lawyers and others to get involved in the budgeting debate. Ackerman was more upbeat. He’s convinced Vickrey and other court officials will be successful in their efforts to get the governor to roll back cuts. Schwarzenegger’s staff, he said, seems very receptive to ideas about the courts. “If the arguments are good, I think they’ll take a look at it,” Ackerman said. “The chances of [Friday's proposal] being the final numbers will be slim.” Along with the court cuts, Schwarzenegger also announced a substantial increase in fees for colleges, including a 40 percent hike in state-run law schools. If approved by the Legislature, that would mean students at Boalt Hall School of Law would pay an additional $5,000 on top of the $16,000 per year they already shell out because of other recent increases. Boalt interim Dean Robert Berring pointed out that the new figure, $21,000, is close to tuition at a private school. “One of the things that always made Boalt noteworthy is that we offered the best education that was affordable to many people. We’d hate to lose that,” Berring said. A spokeswoman for Hastings College of the Law Chancellor Mary Kay Kane said Kane would not comment on the fee increase.

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