Wednesday’s hearing of the subcommittee overseeing California courts started off like so many others have -– with another sad recital of the suffering that years of budget cuts have brought to the judiciary.
And then Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield crashed the party.
Blumenfield, D-Van Nuys, is not a regular member of the Assembly budget subcommittee no. 5. He is, however, chairman of the full budget committee. So if he drops in on a subcommittee hearing, he’s going to get people’s attention. And that he did when he told the assembled leaders that their past decisions are not forgotten.
“While the state grappled with a budget crisis, court administrators sometimes have acted fiscally irresponsible even though fiscal responsibility was the mantra of the day, “ Blumenfield said. “We've seen a failed computer system with years of cost overruns and nearly $500 million wasted. In the process, the courts took millions from trial courts -- sacrificing access to justice -- to keep the failed computer project running. This year, the court system will likely enter an agreement and spend $100 million more than we should to build a new courthouse in Long Beach.”
Blumenfield said he isn’t pleased with Los Angeles County Superior Court’s decision to close courthouses and consolidate services either.
“The Legislature has acted to keep court budgeting stable through fees and other solutions,” he continued. “But the court's requested increases demand an assessment of how responsibly existing budget levels have been used.”
Branch leaders, who didn’t respond to Blumenfield at Wednesday’s hearing, will surely argue that funding has been anything but stable with the significant loss of state general fund dollars. And they would say -– they have said -– that the chief justice and Judicial Council have turned a page on the spending decisions of the past.
But reading between the lines, the Assembly’s top budget official seemed to be saying that if the Legislature does restore any judicial funding, it’s going to come with some serious strings attached. What those conditions might be aren’t clear yet, but they’d probably include requirements that money be spent on increased trial court staffing and re-opened courthouses, things that labor would surely like to see, and not case management systems or electronic recording.
Blumenfield said he also wanted to hear more cost-saving ideas from the branch. “My only request is that your proposals focus on maintaining or improving access to justice,” he said.