Rosy Budget Outlook for California — but Not Its Courts

By Maria Dinzeo
SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — California’s trial courts face an uncertain fiscal outlook in the coming year, partly because of two voter-approved propositions, the Legislative Analyst’s Office reported Wednesday in its biannual budget forecast.
The independent analyst’s report is meant to give the governor and Legislature some idea of how much they can spend in fiscal year 2017-18, before Governor Jerry Brown releases his initial budget package in January. In its brief section on the judiciary, the LAO said Propositions 63 and 66 will likely increase operating costs for courts by tens of millions of dollars.
Proposition 63, which requires a person who wants to buy ammunition to pass a background check and obtain approval from the Department of Justice, could increase court workloads tremendously, as it creates a new court process to ensure the removal of firearms from people convicted of felonies and certain misdemeanors.
Proposition 66 aims to hasten executions by limiting habeas corpus petitions and requiring death penalty appeals to be completed within five years of the death sentence. It also requires the judge in the original trial to hear the habeas corpus petition, rather than the California Supreme Court, unless good cause is shown for another court or judge to hear it. Judges also must explain their decisions to the state appellate courts before an appeal can be made to the state’s high court. The fiscal impact of the new law is uncertain, according to the LAO.
“Our forecast assumes that the full implementation of Proposition 63 and Proposition 66 will increase judicial branch costs over the forecast period in the high tens of millions of dollars annually,” the LAO report states.
While the law could result in fewer, shorter filings, it could also force courts to devote more time and resources to process legal challenges. Anita Lee with the LAO clarified the report’s assumptions Wednesday, saying the effects hinge on how courts carry out certain provisions of the new laws.
“The fiscal effects really strongly depend on how they’re implemented,” she said.
While the report projects that the courts will receive about $1.9 billion from the state’s general fund next year, assuming court spending to be at the same level as last year, Lee said the governor’s office and judiciary will likely begin discussions on how to adjust court funding to deal with the new laws.
For the rest of California, the LAO predicts an optimistic fiscal future, estimating that the state will end 2017-18 with a $2.8 billion surplus, despite revenues of $1.7 billion less than projected last year.
Assuming the state doesn’t go wild with new spending, California has enough in reserves to weather a mild recession.
“Our recession scenario shows that the state budget is much better prepared to weather a mild economic downturn with minimal disruptions to programs,” the report states. “However, the reserve balances displayed in this chapter assume the state makes no new budget commitments — whether spending increases or tax reductions.
“If the state were to make significant ongoing budget commitments in 2017–18 or later, reserve balances would be insufficient to cover operating deficits in a mild recession and the state could face much more difficult choices — such as reducing spending or increasing taxes — to balance the state budget.”

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