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LEGISLATURE SPURNED BY GOVERNOR’S QUIET DEAL WITH COURTS Call it Sacramento’s version of a political love triangle: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Chief Justice Ronald George have developed a chummy budget relationship this year, leaving the Legislature feeling rather jilted. In addition to lavishing the judiciary with high-profile money for new judges and conservatorship reforms, the administration quietly gave George an equally coveted gift in its 2007-08 budget proposal: an SAL extension. And lawmakers aren’t thrilled about it. SAL, or the state appropriations limit, is a spending formula that automatically boosts the judiciary’s trial court budget every year. Court leaders like SAL because they don’t have to demonstrate a need for the budget increase. As the state-allocated funding has risen annually � an average of 5 percent since 2000 � judiciary executives have gotten to decide how it’s spent. Last year, the governor tried to extend the SAL beyond just the trial courts, arguing that as a separate and co-equal branch of government the entire judiciary should have the power to budget as it sees fit. The Legislature nixed that $17.9 million proposal, however, saying the Supreme Court, appellate courts and other nontrial court functions don’t need the automatic spending increases. This year, the Schwarzenegger administration didn’t ask the Legislature; budget-writers just added an extra $16.7 million to the state judiciary’s spending plan � an increase equal to the 5.6 percent boost given to trial courts. Department of Finance officials said the SAL extension was based on an agreement between Schwarzenegger and George. “What is this agreement?” asked Sen. Mike Machado, D-Linden, at a budget subcommittee hearing earlier this month. “Is it a handshake? Is it a piece of paper? This is news to me. How many other sidebar agreements do we have that are going to be coming up?” Department of Finance staffers said quietly that they didn’t know of any others. “Maybe we don’t need the Department of Finance if all it’s going to do is rubber-stamp proposals that say ‘Co-equal, therefore good,’” said Machado, who chairs the subcommittee with oversight of the judiciary’s budget. And with that, Machado told the Department of Finance to justify its approval of the spending proposals already submitted by the judiciary. Judicial leaders have tried to stay away from the spat between the governor and the Legislature. And they recently unveiled their proposed spending list for the extra money. Some of the $16.7 million would go toward more staffing for the California Appellate Project in San Francisco, additional help for court-appointed counsel for children in dependency cases, and three new positions in the Habeas Corpus Resource Center. Early signs suggest that the Legislature will let the judiciary spend most, if not all, of the $16.7 million. But lawmakers have also warned court leaders not to expect to keep future budget gifts from the governor.

Cheryl Miller

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