While the battle over the billions of dollars to be spent on CCMS quiets down before the next salvo, the battle over funds for court construction is just beginning to heat up. On one side we have the AOC and its supporters who are preparing to fight hard to prevent anybody from touching the funds in the court construction fund. On the other side are interest groups representing court staff and in particular Judge Charles McCoy of Los Angeles County, who want a review of the monies in the court construction funds and a possible diversion of those funds back to trial court funding. There is no common ground between these two opposing parties. The AOC and its supporters view the court construction funds as off-limits. The opposition sees the funds as part of a possible overall solution to preventing court closures, furloughs, and decreased services to the public.
AOC Supporters Launch Initial Attack
The first group to lead the attack on the AOC’s behalf is the Bench-Bar Coalition. An information sheet put out by the AOC describes the Bench-Bar Coalition as a group formed in 1993 comprised mostly of “judges and the presidents, past presidents, presidents-elect, executive directors, or other person(s) designated by the president, of a state, local, minority or specialty bar association; legal services organization; or statewide organization dedicated to improving the justice system.” In a conference call with media last week the group voiced their opposition to diversion of any court construction funds. In a piece printed in the online edition of the Metropolitan-News Enterprise, a spokesperson for the Bench-Bar Coalition told the online journal that, “what the coalition is committed to doing and making sure of is that the Legislature understands the need for adequate funding for the courts and to ensure that the courts’ badly-needed infrastructure needs are protected as well.”
In order to prepare to defend the court construction funds the Bench-Bar Coalition developed a memo laying out to its members how it should address any questions about the court construction funds and how to phrase the argument in the group’s favor. I happened to get a copy of the memo and make no mistake about it. Although the general tone of the talking points is to persuade the Legislature that court funding it its entirety should be funded, the main objective of the group is that no monies whatsoever should be diverted from the court construction fund.
IMPACT OF POTENTIAL DIVERSION OF SB 1407 REVENUES IN FY 2010-11
Some have suggested diverting SB 1407 revenues in FY 2010-11 as a means to backfill ongoing budget shortfalls in court operations. For 2010-11, the Judicial Council committed to the Legislature to transfer $20 million to support court operations.
Any additional diversions will delay and disrupt existing construction schedules and result in higher construction costs to complete approved projects. In addition, increased construction and supply costs
create the potential that fewer projects can be completed, due to limited funding. Finally, additional delays in construction and renovation prolong existing dangerous conditions faced each day by users of
those courthouses that have security, seismic, and structural hazards, as well as ADA–related deficiencies.
In addition to scheduling delays, diversion of SB 1407 revenue will increase the cost of every project because further redirections will increase the cost the cost of borrowing. The cost of financing new
construction is significant portion of the overall program cost for SB 1407. The Legislature has worked with the Judicial Council to develop a financial framework that creates confidence in the bond market that California is committed to completing 41 projects utilizing SB 1407 revenue. However, diversions erode market confidence which means investors will increase interest rates in order to mitigate the perceived risk.
To ensure that the judicial branch has the essential resources to carry out its responsibilities to fully support court operations and court infrastructure:
1. The Legislature must be made aware of the urgency to restore budget cuts to court operations;
2. Legislators need to be made aware of the immediate and significant consequences of delaying continued progress on the immediate and critical needs courthouse projects.
In addition to the statements above the talking points memo developed by the Bench-Bar Coalition also listed 10 “Key Messages” which included their argument that diverting construction of courthouses to a later date would lead to a loss of jobs and increased construction costs. They also claim that they have the support of the majority of presiding judges in the state.
52 of the state’s 58 trial court presiding judges have banded together to support preserving the use of SB 1407 funds for court construction and renovation projects. This even includes judges in those courts that do not have SB 1407 projects.
And in addition to the Talking Points Memo the Bench-Bar Coalition distributed a form letter to its members in the hopes that they fill in the blanks with their names and send it to their legislators. And in case their members didn’t know who their legislators were, not to worry. The Bench-Bar Coalition also distributed a list with the names, phone, and fax numbers of all the legislators in the state.
That the AOC and its supporters are working overtime on plans to counter any attack on court construction funds shows that they’re more than aware of how they could be vulnerable on this issue. The fact that Presiding Judge Charles McCoy of Los Angeles county has come out against the AOC on this issue and is actively campaigning against them is one thing. The argument for moving against the AOC and its construction funds could be persuasive if more judges joined Judge McCoy who happens to preside over the largest court district in the state. The AOC could really take a hit in this battle if more counties and their presiding judges decide to join Judge McCoy and his campaign to divert funds away from the construction fund back to the day-to-day operations of courts. I’ve heard rumors that the number of presiding judges on the sidelines waiting to join Judge McCoy is growing. But what’s preventing them from stepping forward is a mystery.
In the end, the battle over CCMS and the court construction fund is going to get nastier and dirtier. If the state coffers come up short again and even more drastic cuts to state services are enacted, and if the judicial branch’s piece of the pie is even smaller next year than it was this year, the AOC is going to have to come up with some pretty convincing reasons why CCMS and court construction funds should go untouched. Especially if their solution involves another round of court closures, furloughs, and slashed salaries.