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Legislature Split on Court Funds

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With the threat of money running out as early as next week to keep the state’s trial courts open, a divided Legislature has begun wrestling with a variety of solutions to prevent the embarrassing specter of a collapsing judiciary.

Democrats have proposed one solution and Republicans another, while both sides debate whether the problem is, in truth, reaching crisis proportions.

Assembly Republicans on Thursday blocked a Democratic attempt to approve $290 million as a temporary bailout for the courts, saying the Democrats were crying wolf too early.

A procedural vote to allow the house to debate allocating the emergency funds was defeated. It fell 10 votes shy of the two-thirds majority needed for passage.

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Money can be found at the local level to keep the courts open day to day, Republicans said. The bill, SB 21, by Senate Leader Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward) to make up shortages until the end of the fiscal year in June was unnecessary, said Assembly Minority Leader Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove), who marshaled GOP forces to prevent a vote on the measure.

“I have not heard of one court that would be forced to close by the first of March,” Pringle said.

He called for a realignment of court funding that would stay in place indefinitely. Legislation to put such a plan in place could be debated on Monday--ample time to head off court closures, he said.

But Democrats disagreed, saying the GOP plan risked courts running out of operating funds as early as next week.

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Assemblywoman Martha Escutia (D-Bell) said that because of the time it takes the state controller to write and distribute checks, the Legislature had lost its last chance to prevent some courts from closing.

Court officials, she said Thursday, “told me we have to appropriate money today” to prevent closure. At immediate risk, she said, were courts in at least 16 mostly rural counties, including Imperial County in Southern California.

Larger counties are also considered to be in financial straits, but less so. A spokesman for the Los Angeles County Superior Courts said that without state aid, courts there might be forced to close in June.

Lockyer, meanwhile, said he has no intention of agreeing to any permanent court-funding plan that is not negotiated as part of the 1997-98 state budget agreement.

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He compared the GOP position to that adopted by House Speaker Newt Gingrich and congressional Republicans last year that resulted in shutting down the federal government. Lockyer then advised senators to tell critics in their districts who are fearful of imminent court shut-down to direct their concerns at their local GOP Assembly representative, not to members of the Senate.

“That’s where their anxieties should be directed,” he said. The Senate passed the Lockyer bill 29-0 on Feb. 7.

Trial court funding battles have raged in the Legislature and the office of Gov. Pete Wilson for the last three years. It began with the governor proposing a ceiling on the costs to be met by the county, and the state picking up any extra.

The fight reached the floors of the Legislature last year--and ended without a solution when Lockyer inserted a demand to permit collective bargaining for about 22,000 court employees statewide.

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According to Lockyer staffers, Wilson lobbied Assembly Republicans, who at the time were in a majority, to kill the bill. In the current standoff, Wilson is not taking sides at the moment, an aide said.

In the absence of legislation authorizing state funds, the counties are bearing the brunt of financing trial courts. By one estimate, counties are meeting 60% of the costs and a “big hole” remains unfilled by the state, which now receives the fines and forfeitures that courts collect, but cannot return the funds to the counties.

Times staff writer Carl Ingram contributed to this story.


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