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Jurist Fears Effects of Budget Cuts on Courts

The state's chief justice tells Legislature that civil and family law services will suffer and that more courthouses may close.

March 26, 2003|Evan Halper and Carl Ingram | Times Staff Writers

SACRAMENTO — California's chief jurist on Tuesday became the latest top official to warn of devastating effects from budget cuts proposed by Gov. Gray Davis, as the nonpartisan legislative analyst spelled out just how hard services would be hit by a Republican plan that calls for even more.

Chief Justice Ronald George told lawmakers that the governor's proposed $134 million in judicial budget cuts could close the courthouse doors to poor families and children, as well as civil litigants.

George made the comments in his annual "state of the judiciary" speech to the Legislature as lawmakers seek to solve a budget shortfall of as much as $35 billion over the next 16 months.

"Every type of civil and family law case will be affected negatively if budget cuts dig deeper into the heart of our justice system," he said.

The cuts proposed by Davis for next year would be added to $154.5 million in reductions already made in the current fiscal year, according to court officials.

As examples, George said two "full service" courthouses in Riverside County have been closed and will soon deal only with small claims, traffic and eviction cases. He reported that night court operations in Orange County have been reduced from weekly to monthly sessions and that some court employees in Los Angeles County have received layoff notices as officials consider shuttering several courthouses.

He warned that citizens already have been denied services from family law information centers that guide victims of domestic violence through the judicial system.

On a recent day, he said, the busy Los Angeles County family law center handled 91 cases, but had to reject 16 others, including a woman whose child was not returned after a visit with its father. As a result, she failed to get an emergency order directing that the child be sent home.

In the civil system, he said, virtually every type of service is "under scrutiny and in danger of reduction or elimination ... and the burden falls on the public, which increasingly cannot obtain needed services in a timely fashion."

On Monday, Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell also called on lawmakers to reject $963 million of the cuts Davis proposed to K-12 schools, and raise taxes instead. Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer warned that the elimination of a $3-million witness protection program could result in more murders.

Officials for the Davis administration say the cuts in their plan are part of a "balanced approach" to bring California back into the black. They note that Republicans are already opposed to the $8.3 billion in new taxes the governor is calling for, so trying to balance the budget with more taxes and fewer cuts does not appear politically viable.

A hearing Tuesday of the Senate Budget Committee reinforced that point. Republicans continued to push for a budget plan that attempts to close the shortfall without tax increases. The plan would balance the budget over two years, and require an additional cut of at least 7% to government services on top of what Davis is proposing.

The hearing was more evidence that a budget agreement continues to elude the Legislature as the June constitutional deadline for reaching one approaches.

In a report to the committee, Legislative Analyst Elizabeth G. Hill confirmed that the GOP plan would hit all government services hard. She said it could result in $2 billion in cuts to education above the already steep $5.2 billion proposed by Davis, as well as a suspension of Proposition 98, which guarantees minimum funding to K-12 schools.

The plan could also force $1.5 billion more to be cut from health and social services programs beyond what Davis has proposed, Hill said. The governor's plan has already met fierce resistance in that area because it will result in the loss of health insurance for 500,000 low-income Californians.

Hill said the GOP plan would also cut a total of $400 million from the University of California and California State University systems. Democrats point out that that could mean not admitting any freshmen for as much as a year.

The Department of Corrections, according to Hill, could take a $350-million cut under the GOP plan.

Lawmakers became testy at times as Democrats tried to show that balancing the budget without new taxes would devastate services, and Republicans argued that raising more taxes would only weaken the economy.

"The governor asked us if we didn't like his budget to come up with a plan, and we have done that," said Senate Republican Leader Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga. "We're putting this budget on the table to meet people halfway."

Sen. Jack Scott (D-Altadena) tried to get Brulte to acknowledge that the GOP budget plan would require a suspension of Proposition 98 funding guarantees to education, forcing 29,000 teacher layoffs.

Brulte suggested that it may be possible to make the reductions some other way, and said that suspending Proposition 98 "is the last place I would like to go."

"I think your wishes would really not be significant," Scott said, adding that the cuts in the Republican plan are so deep that they would be impossible to make without suspending education funding.

Brulte shot back in frustration: "You know, senator, the unfortunate thing is we have a $36-billion deficit because my wishes haven't counted for anything for the last three years."

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