The way Fresno County Superior Court Judge Gary Hoff explains it, these are not happy financial times for the state’s superior court system.
In the past five years, the amount of the judicial budget covered by the state’s general fund has fallen from 56% to 20%. Last year alone, general fund support for the judicial branch of government dropped by $544 million.
Judge Gary Hoff
Ideally, the Fresno County court system should have 584 employees to adequately meet its staffing needs, Hoff told a Bench Bar Media luncheon group today at the Downtown Club. At one point, that number reached 550. It is now at 420 and is expected to continue on the downward trend.
The state is requiring reserves to be spent by mid-2014 — at least that is the plan for now — with a reserve no greater than 1% kept on hand after that.
“One slight mistake, we aren’t making payroll,” said Hoff, the current presiding judge of the Fresno County Superior Court.
So what to do?
Those in the judicial system often say they are an easy budget cut because they have no constituency. A few judges, prosecutors and others complaining to legislators don’t carry the weight of broader constituencies who might be affected by budget cuts in other areas.
But today, Hoff — as well as U.S. District Judge Anthony W. Ishii, speaking on the federal side — told attorneys they should urge their clients and other people affected by any proposed budget cuts to speak up.
These aren’t the judges or prosecutors, but real people who are paying higher fees to use the court system, or who are facing delays in their hearings.
With the drop in general fund support for the judicial budget, Hoff said, the expectation is the difference will be made up by user fees.
That means higher traffic fines, penalty assessments on convictions and filing fees in areas such as custody or divorce cases. These often hit hard-working taxpayers, Hoff said.
In 2007, Hoff said, court filing fee costs ranged from $180 to $320. Now it is $225 to $435.
Said Hoff: “It’s not a good business model.”
The challenge is convincing state legislators and Gov. Jerry Brown. And those were the marching orders Hoff gave to the luncheon guests.
As if it wasn’t clear to this point, Gov. Jerry Brown in his State Of The State address today once again talked of reforming the California Environmental Quality Act.
Name-checking the 43-year-old state law was cheered by three San Joaquin Valley legislators, two of them Republicans, the third a key Senate Democrat.
Michael Rubio, D-Bakersfield, has made it clear he wants serious reform to the law, and he is chair of the Senate Environmental Quality Committee, which would hear any reform proposals.
The law, better known as CEQA, is a central tenant of California’s environmental protections. But is also under fire for slowing major projects and for stymieing infill development projects.Rubio specifically mentioned a proposed infill project at L and San Joaquin streets in downtown Fresno that has been halted by a CEQA lawsuit.
Brown — who has previously stated the need for CEQA reform — once again seemed to agree, this time using the annual gubernatorial address.
“We also need to rethink and streamline our regulatory procedures, particularly the California Environmental Quality Act,” according to Brown’s prepared speech. “Our approach needs to be based more on consistent standards that provide greater certainty and cut needless delays.”
Rubio said he was encouraged that Brown chose to not only to bring up CEQA in the speech, but also to add a bit of detail on providing certainty and cutting delays.
“Clearly, it is a priority for the governor and provides great momentum for a coalition that is forming to move forward in streamlining CEQA,” he said.
He said Brown’s support will help embolden the coalition. He said legislation is currently in the works, with plans to introduce it next month ahead of the Feb. 22 deadline for filing bills.
Assembly Member Kristin Olsen, R-Modesto, said she wanted “a more detailed plan for spurring job creation” from Brown, but was “pleased that he at least wants to reform CEQA and provide more certainty to businesses.”
State Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres, dedicated a whole paragraph to CEQA reform in a written statement.“I believe that the goals of CEQA are valuable to our communities, but reform is needed so that special interests can no longer subvert the system by using it as a tool to unnecessarily delay development through litigation,” he said.
Now, all that remains is pushing that legislation through the Assembly and state Senate and then to Brown.
Many environmentalists will work to kill any such CEQA reform proposals, and might even find allies among the Valley’s agriculture community, some of whom have filed CEQA suits to stop the state’s proposed high-speed rail project.
New Assembly Member Jim Patterson, a Fresno Republican, introduced his first piece of legislation this week, and already there’s a chance he could be upstaged on the bill by majority Democrats.
Assembly Bill 63 — with Patterson as the lead author and six other Republicans including North Fork’s Frank Bigelow as co-authors — deals with parolees or accused criminals who illegally cut off ankle monitors. Senate Bill 57, by Democratic state Sens. Ted Lieu and Bakersfield’s Michael Rubio, also deals with cutting off ankle monitors.
“The days of Republicans getting their names (as a lead author) on bills — on a popular bill — are probably past,” said Tony Quinn, a longtime political analyst and former Republican legislative aide.
Quinn said Democrats have controlled the state Legislature for 15 years, and in that time all the high-profile bills ended up with Democratic lead authors.
At least now, Patterson’s is more specific.
If the person is prosecuted for removing the ankle monitor, the current bill language says, the judge has discretion to sentence him to state prison for up to three years on the high side, or a year in county jail on the low side. If the crime is addressed as a parole violation, any sentence would be served in state prison.
At this point, the Lieu/Rubio bill only says the state Legislature intends to enact legislation that would “address the removal and disablement of global positioning system (GPS) monitoring devices by parolees and probationers.”
But Rubio said he and Lieu will soon amend the bill into a more specific proposal — one that will make such actions a felony.
Rubio said he first thought of the bill last year when Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood approached him with the idea. The timing, however, wasn’t right.
But Rubio and Lieu think the mood of the public has changed with more parolees being released under the state’s prison realignment plan, and with rape being in the news lately.
“We’re going to work it aggressively,” Rubio said. “We’ve already discussed it with a number of members.”
In the end, there could be some joining of the minds on the Senate bill.
Rubio said he and Lieu had reached out to Patterson to see if he was interested in being a co-author, and Patterson said he plans to accept the offer.
Quinn thinks that in the end, some language from Patterson’s bill could possibly end up in the one from Rubio and Lieu, which has the better chance of moving forward.