SACRAMENTO — Courts in Alameda, San Francisco and Santa Clara counties would be among those hardest hit by a historic plan, unveiled Friday, to redistribute funding among California’s 58 trial courts.
The long-awaited numbers show, as expected, that the proposed funding formula generally would help the bottom lines of courts in the fast-growing Inland Empire and Central Valley — places like San Bernardino and Stanislaus. Urban and coastal counties, with the exception of Los Angeles, would suffer the most. L.A. Superior Court would see a slight increase in funding under the plan.
The formula, crafted over several months by a Judicial Council committee, is designed to tie each court’s funding level to its workload, including case filings. Currently, courts are largely funded based on what they historically received when counties, not the state, controlled the purse-strings. The current system has created significant funding disparities among similarly situated courts around the state.
"There are underfunded courts and woefully underfunded courts," Orange County Superior Court Presiding Judge Thomas Borris, a member of the committee that wrote the new formula, said at a council-sponsored briefing in Sacramento on Friday.
"This formula that we’ve worked on will hopefully begin to raise the woefully underfunded courts more quickly, not only if there’s a change in the method of the funding but also if there’s additional funding from the Legislature and the governor given in this budget cycle," Borris said.
Borris and other committee members pitched their proposal to an invite-only gathering of lobbyists, organized labor leaders, legislative staffers and representatives of the State Bar and Department of Finance. The briefing was not advertised to the general public or the media, although no one appeared to be denied entry.
The early reaction was one of skepticism and suggests that labor groups wary of any infringement on their local bargaining power are not on board with the plan. Some critics complained the proposal doesn’t adequately factor in the nuances of why, for instance, a felony case may take longer or cost more in one county compared to another. Committee members, too, acknowledged that they haven’t resolved many issues, such as how to measure acceptable funding for court employee health benefits.
"We need to know a lot more about the proposal and how the money will actually flow," Service Employees International Union lobbyist Michelle Castro said after the briefing.
The Judicial Council will consider the proposal at its meeting April 25-26 in San Francisco. Even if, as expected, the council adopts the plan, it can still be changed or entirely discarded by the Legislature, where organized labor wields significant influence.
Though the proposed formula provides a clear list of financial winners and losers, the effects would be blunted in the first year. For 2013-14, the committee is recommending the council base just 10 percent of a court’s budget on the new model. The remaining 90 percent of the court’s funding would be determined by the current historically based appropriation system.
That means a court like Santa Clara would lose just under $2.1 million in the first year — a large numerical figure but a relatively small percentage of its $97 million total funding package. That budget pain would grow, however, as the new funding formula is phased in over the next four years. By 2017, all courts would receive half of their general fund money under the new allocation scheme.
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