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A legislative analysis slammed court administrators for their overhaul of court computer systems, saying a lack of project planning and oversight could prove costly to the state of Californa. The non-partisan Legislative Analyst’s Office said the judicial branch has already spent $32.4 million on two new systems, yet court administrators could not provide a total cost estimate, nor could they say how they planned to pay for the projects even in the next budget year. “Before you embark on a major thing like this you want to have a sense of what it’s going to cost,” said Greg Jolivette, director of the LAO’s criminal justice section. But the Administrative Office of the Courts defended its handling of the projects. Finance director Christine Hansen said the courts do have a six-year spending plan for the modernization of court computer systems — it’s just not in the format the LAO is used to. “We’re still trying to figure out how much to charge courts and how to make the model work with the state budget crisis,” Hansen said. Although there are project goals, if things go wrong or if Sacramento cuts more court funding, the plan will just be delayed, not derailed, Hansen added. The criticism comes as administrators and legislators gear up to try to protect the courts from cuts proposed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The governor has proposed cutting $70 million out of the judicial branch’s $2.5 billion budget, and court leaders fear that lawmakers will continue to look to courts for cuts. Although the LAO didn’t have much to say about the governor’s cuts, it did recommend that courts follow the same guidelines as other state agencies while implementing the new computer systems. Jolivette said that without clear spending goals and a plan to deal with cost overruns, “you leave the state open to financial exposure and liability.” That’s because most judicial branch money comes from the state’s general fund. Now that the ball is rolling on the computer projects, Sacramento is obligated to follow through. The LAO agrees that the old computer systems need to be replaced. But it doesn’t want to hand the courts an endless line of credit — especially during the worst budget crisis in state history. William Vickrey, the administrative director of the courts, said the criticism released Feb. 18 seemed to come out of nowhere. “This project has gone through the budget funding procedure and has been debated in the Legislature and [governor's office]. Now it feels to some extent like we’re coming back after the fact,” Vickrey said. Seed money for the computer upgrades was approved in the 2001-02 legislative session. Vickrey said at that time lawmakers recognized that the state’s budgeting practices couldn’t apply to the courts perfectly. “I don’t have any objection to providing the information. I just don’t want it to slow down or cancel contracts,” Vickrey said. Vickrey said he was also surprised that the LAO report didn’t contain any significant discussion of the more serious budget problems facing courts, such as Schwarzenegger’s cuts. The new computer systems are part of the larger scheme of unifying state courts and bringing them under one statewide planning and funding umbrella. One system will help courts better manage their finances and enable them to follow state budgeting protocols for accounting and reporting; the other puts in place a statewide case management system. Both projects are scheduled to be complete by 2009. Of California’s 58 counties, only five have one system — the financial reporting program — currently up and running. In Wednesday’s report, the LAO says having courts follow the same budgeting guidelines as other state agencies ensures there is proper planning, especially if something expensive goes wrong. In its report, the LAO even included language it suggests be inserted into a 2004-05 budget bill to make sure that the state doesn’t get hosed if something goes wrong with the computer projects. “We think that before they spend any additional funding on those projects, they should tell us how much it’s going to cost,” Jolivette said. Vickrey said he’s confident his office can work out differences with the analyst before budget hearings this spring. And he’ll give the LAO what it needs; he just needs a little slack. “It’s not like you’re dealing with a department in the executive branch that has operated the same way for the last 10 years,” he said. The LAO’s critical report was included in its annual budget analysis, which is a response to the governor’s January budget proposal. Although Schwarzenegger did not mention the computer projects in his budget plan, Jolivette said his office wanted to make sure that courts were following the direction of the Legislature, which passed the laws governing unification and state court funding several years ago.

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