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Assembly OKs $290-Million Bailout for Trial Courts

Legislature: Governor is expected to sign the bill. The funds will end threat of closures in beleaguered system.

March 04, 1997|MAX VANZI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — With Republicans reluctantly going along, the Assembly gave final legislative approval Monday to providing $290 million to help California's trial courts out of a financial pinch.

The funds will be used to help keep the courts open through June, ending the threat of any immediate closures.

By June, the argument over how best to fund trial courts over the long term is expected to become one of the points of contention as lawmakers debate the 1997-98 state budget.

Monday's 74-4 Assembly vote sent the bailout bill to Gov. Pete Wilson, who is expected to sign it soon. The Senate passed the measure 29 to 0 on Feb. 7.

According to Assembly Democrats who pressed for the immediate infusion of cash, courts in small counties were already doing some creative financing to remain open.

Assemblyman Dennis Cardoza (D-Merced) said Merced County courts borrowed $300,000 to prevent closures. Assemblywoman Helen Thomson (D-Davis) said that in Yolo County, local officials operated for two weeks on fines and forfeitures that normally are sent to the state treasury.

Officials of the larger counties, including Los Angeles, said their courts would have suffered closures and cutbacks had the funding delay lasted much longer.

Partisan fighting, largely over the question of collective bargaining rights for court employees, has held up state appropriations for the courts for the past two months, the latest postponement coming last week when Assembly Republicans blocked a Democratic attempt to bring to a vote a plan proposed by Senate leader Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward).

Most Republicans voted for the Lockyer measure Monday, after making a last round of floor speeches in favor of an alternate proposal that would have provided longer-term court funding.

"I believe we're overlooking a fiscal crisis in counties today . . . by saying just get by and ignore a solution for the future," said Assembly minority leader Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove).

Republicans also objected that by putting off a final solution until June, Democrats were seeking unfairly to strengthen their hand in future negotiations over the collective bargaining issue.

But Assemblywoman Martha M. Escutia (D-Bell), who argued for the Lockyer bill on the Assembly floor, said lengthy legislative hearings are required in advance of long-term solutions--thus necessitating quick passage of Monday's short-term funding measure.

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