Brown's budget may result in courthouse project freeze

4:49 PM, Jan 16, 2013   |    comments
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Gordon D. Schaber Sacramento County Courthouse

Four California courthouse construction projects, two in the Sacramento region, face an indefinite delay from what court officials say may be their only option under Gov. Jerry Brown's new state budget.

"I know the governor is doing everything he can in a tight economic circumstance to cushion the blow," said Stephen Jahr, a retired Shasta County superior court judge who now serves as director of the state's Administrative Office of the Courts.  "But the fact is that our trial courts have had to do with less."

On Thursday, the Judicial Council of California -- the policymaking body of the state court system -- will consider a freeze on four additional court construction projects in Fresno, Los Angeles, Sacramento, and Nevada County (PDF).  That's in addition to seven other delayed courthouse construction projects last October.

The action, if taken by the state council, would be in reaction to the governor's budget plan rolled out on January 10, one that proposes $235 million less in state general fund support for the courts.  That includes a $200 million transfer from the judicial branch's 'critical needs' account to help cover the cost of trial court operations, and an offloading of $34.8 million in long promised state budget funding to finish the new Long Beach courthouse later this year.

California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye called the money that Brown wants to divert "vital for court safety and compliance projects" in a statement after the governor's budget was released.  She said such action, if approved later this year by the Legislature, would have the effect of "nearly eliminating meaningful upgrades for several years."

Court officials say that since 2008, the judiciary has weathered some $1 billion in delayed construction projects, layered on top of more than $475 million in cuts to its court operating budgets.

The delay to the Sacramento project, if approved, is particularly tricky, as the location sits inside the city's much talked about Railyards development project.  The staff recommendation to the Judicial Council is to spend $10 million for site acquisition -- thus allowing the larger area project to stay on track -- but freezing all other project spending.

Governor Brown's budget advisers don't dispute that tough medicine is being given to the courts in the new spending plan, but say that the reshuffling of dollars is the only alternative to deep cuts in daily court operations.

"Let's take a look at the courts' budget relative to what else has been happening in recent years," says H.D. Palmer, a budget spokesman for Brown.  "We've been able to draw down other funding sources, to keep their overall funding levels stable on a year to year basis, at a time where other aspects of the state budget have taken deep and dramatic cuts."

The pending action by the Judicial Council, while no doubt an effort to expect the worst, also helps serve as a political marker for the coming legislative debate over Brown's budget -- a message, of sorts, that additional hits to the judiciary's budget may add a further backlog of court construction and day-to-day court cases, thus slowing down the wheels of justice that much more in the years to come.


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