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No funds for courts in Brown’s budget as Nevada City pushes for local control

Christopher Rosacker
Staff Writer
Photo for The Union by John Hart
John Hart | The Union

Despite surging state tax revenue, Gov. Jerry Brown announced a spending plan Tuesday for the coming fiscal year that is $1.2 billion lower than he projected in January.

And while’s Brown’s plan does call for bolstered educational support on the heels of the voter approved Proposition 30 tax, it did not include sought-after courts funds — an omission Nevada City officials said reinforces the local need to independently take the first step toward renovations of the Nevada County Courthouse.

“I’m disappointed that the Governor’s revised budget proposals provide no more fiscal relief to the courts,” said Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye in a statement. “Given the state’s current fiscal condition, I had hoped for more effort to help stop the downward spiral of the judicial branch budget.”

Brown partially attributed the bleaker-than-projected budget plan to actions taken by the federal government, which did not extend a 2-percent payroll tax reduction.

“The Governor has revenue estimates that are lower than anyone expected, largely due to the increased federal payroll tax suppressing the economy,” said State Sen. Jim Nielsen (R-Gerber), a member of the Senate Budget Committee whose district includes Nevada County, in a statement.

The federal government cutbacks — so-called sequestration — are affecting the state’s overall economy just as it was gaining strength after years of recession, Brown said.

Brown’s proposed general fund budget of $96.4 billion would still invest heavily in education, thanks to a big haul of state tax revenue. Voters approved Brown’s Proposition 30 last fall to increase the state’s sales and income taxes, with the state’s education funding formula sending most of the extra money to public schools.

“I sure don’t disagree with Jerry Brown on eduction, but that doesn’t mean you neglect everything else,” said Nevada City Councilman Robert Bergman. “I know that the Judicial Council has been begging for more money.”

Since the 2008 passage of Senate Bill 1407, an unprecedented courthouse rebuilding program, nearly $1.5 billion of funding from the bill has instead been borrowed, transferred to the state’s general fund or redirected to court operations. Just this year, the Administrative Office of the Courts reported that the State Legislature ordered $50 million per year be permanently diverted from court construction to trial court operations.

Part of that funding diversion put plans to rebuild the county courthouse that overlooks downtown Nevada City on an indefinite delay.

Bergman sits on the Nevada City Courthouse Committee that is pushing for a locally funded feasibility and cost engineering study. His council colleagues backed the need for the estimated $94,000 independent study at their May 8 meeting, though they have not yet specified how much, if any, of the city’s budget will be allocated to such an endeavor.

That topic could be broached at the council’s special 6:30 p.m. meeting Thursday to debate uses of the voter-approved sales tax increase, dubbed Measure L during the November election.

“So long as funding isn’t available for court construction, the likelihood of our project going forward stays in a certain sense of limbo,” Bergman said.

“If nothing happens, where we are left when funding comes back is they won’t even look at us,” he said. “This way, we are in a much different setting, assuming the study is successful.”

Not only is the AOC allocating resources toward the study in the form of supporting personnel, if it is funded, but the city has tapped Michael Ross and Associates to conduct the study — a firm that has performed numerous architectural studies for the AOC.

“The state has said they will accept this report as if it is their own report,” said Paul Matson, a member of the courthouse committee.

Should funds become available, Judicial Council spokesman Cathal Conneely told The Union in a May 8 phone interview that restoration of court operations is the first priority. However, its second priority is construction projects.

“We have climbed out of a hole with the Proposition 30 tax, but this is not the time to break out the champagne,” Brown said. “It’s a call for prudence, not exuberance.”

Republican lawmakers generally liked that message. Nielsen called Brown’s budget proposal a positive step, but strongly cautioned against increasing the size and scope of state spending.

“Having been through many budget committee hearings, I must caution the Governor and my Democrat colleagues to keep in mind that California government is still increasing spending by some 24 percent over the next four years,” Nielsen said.

Democrats were more muted than their Republican colleagues. Many of them want to spend the incoming tax revenue on safety net programs that were eliminated or greatly reduced during the recession, such as adult dental care for the poor and mental health care.

“We need adequate, ongoing funding for the courts that will permit us to reverse the damage caused by five years of budget cuts,” Cantil-Sakauye said. “We needed critical support a year ago from the other two branches and now the need for justice is urgent.”

Brown’s budget proposal now goes to the Legislature, which has a June 15 deadline to pass a spending plan.

— Associated Press writers Judy Lin, Laura Olson, Don Thompson and Juliet Williams contributed to this report. To contact Staff Writer Christopher Rosacker, email crosacker@theunion.com or call (530) 477-4236.

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