Senate Committee Hearing Notes - May 1, 2012
May 1, 2012
The Senate Majority Caucus has compiled the following summaries of oversight hearings conducted during the weeks of April 9 – 30, 2012.
This series of summaries on the Senate’s government oversight efforts highlights the important work of legislative committees and staff, and provides background material for members and their staffs on issues that may be of importance in their districts.
We appreciate any and all feedback about this summary. Please feel free to contact us via reply email or call (916) 651-1502 with your thoughts.
Conference Committee on Public Employee Pensions
Joint Hearing – Senate Judiciary Committee and Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee, Subcommittee No. 5 on Corrections, Public Safety and the Judiciary
Joint Committee on the Arts
Select Committee on Earthquake and Disaster Preparedness
Conference Committee on Public Employee Pensions
The Conference Committee on Public Employee Pensions met at Chaffey College Community Center in Chino. The agenda focused on two topics: exploring issues unique to the county retirement systems under the 1937 Act County Employees’ Retirement Law and examining statewide pension benefit policy for elected officials. Out of California’s 58 counties, retirees of 20 counties are covered by independent county retirement systems operating under the 1937 Retirement Act, while San Francisco and San Luis Obispo counties have their own retirement programs. The remaining 36 counties are part of the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS).
Speakers gave an overview of the 1937 Act county retirement systems with a focus on the effects of the Ventura Decision and its impact on final compensation calculations in those systems, as well as subsequent settlements. The committee also heard about alternative pension plans already adopted in several ‘37 Act counties. These plans, achieved through collective bargaining, currently provide lower benefit tiers for employees and may need to be grandfathered into any comprehensive, statewide plan that emerges from the Conference Committee.
In addition, the conferees heard an overview, provided by the Legislative Analyst’s Office, of benefits provided to state and local elected officials. Representatives for counties and cities also spoke and answered questions about pension benefits provided for local elected officials. Limiting or eliminating pension benefits for local elected officials has been the topic of a number of Assembly bills in 2012 and the committee is considering whether or not, as part of the Conference Committee report, to include a comprehensive set of standards that would apply to all elected officials, statewide.
The agenda also included a number of issues the Conference Committee is considering for inclusion in the conference report. That list, along with presentations given at the hearing, may be seen on the Senate PE&R website.
Video of the Chino hearing is available.
Joint Informational Hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee, Subcommittee No. 5 on Corrections, Public Safety and the Judiciary
The Senate Judiciary Committee and the Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee, Subcommittee No. 5 on Corrections, Public Safety and the Judiciary, held a joint informational hearing to identify the impact that state budget cuts continue to have on California’s judicial branch of government. The court’s current budget is $3.1 billion, which equates to only 1.4% of the State’s General Fund and 2.4% of the State’s overall budget. The courts’ budget has been reduced 30% in the last four years, and when funding continues to be cut from the judicial court system, it has a disproportionate effect on the public’s access to justice.
The State of California’s judicial branch is, in fact, the third branch of government and impacts all facets of public and private life. Those in attendance at the hearing were reminded that without a fully-funded, fully-staffed court system in California, our constitutional rights are compromised, and cuts and closures to the system have a negative effect beyond the courthouse halls; businesses can’t function smoothly when their outlets for legal recourse are stymied, jobs will continue to be lost, and people won’t take chances, risks or create jobs if the judiciary system is broken. In other words, budget cuts have ripple effects in business, and in the community. The judicial branch of government provides an important counterbalance to the executive and legislative branches.
Several common themes were heard throughout testimony from a handful of panels representing the judicial community. First, courts can’t sustain continuous budget cuts. Many counties, including San Joaquin County, have already closed courthouses, limited clerk hours, suffered sustained layoffs, and have minimized access to court reporters and court interpreters. The lack of court reporters enables self-represented defendants to lie in court with no public record of their statements to fall back on. The only witness is the presiding trial judge, who may or may not have a clear recollection of specific testimony given at a court proceeding.
Secondly, the judicial system impacts everyone – you don’t know you need it until you need it. However, it is acknowledged that those most affected by cuts in court funding are the poor and those who might not otherwise have access to due process, or right to a fair trial without access to the judicial system. For example, traveling to courthouses in other jurisdictions (due to courthouse closures in their cities or counties) is a problem for those without transportation. Ultimately, it was noted during the hearing, that these are the people who often need the system the most and will suffer the most if cuts and closures continue.
The third point discussed pertained to investment and the business climate. It was stated that businesses will be discouraged from commerce in California if the judicial system is not fully resourced and available. Commercial business relies on the judicial system for contracts, permits and dispute resolution. International investors won’t invest unless there is confidence in a reliable justicial system that can resolve commercial disputes.
The last theme surfacing from testimony during the hearing included the current and potential staffing imbalance, compared to the amount of paperwork and other court processes. This can result in an increased workload for staff – and for judges – resulting in delays for trials and other hearings. A resource allocation study looked at how many staff members were needed to handle courtroom workloads. Currently, in California, there are 1,600 judges and 2,000 judicial officers handling the casework of 230,000 lawyers. Specifically, the study pointed out that San Joaquin County, which should have 450 staff to handle its case loads, has only 230 staff; 49% less than needed to handle the work load.
There are several recommended suggestions and best practices from other states that could be implemented in an effort to help restore the system. First, the Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) recommends increasing fees in civil court cases and using unrestricted fund reserves. Witnesses shared their viewpoints on efforts to keep California’s judicial system fully funded, and agreed that increasing fees will have to be part of the budget equation, but are not the final and only solution. Also, it was recognized that increasing court fees will continue to compromise the public’s access to the court system and people will be more inclined to turn to the private sector for legal services. Regarding the fund reserves, the overall consensus was that those courts that have done a good job of balancing and operating within their budget should not be punished for the State’s lack of funding, and that those monies that are already earmarked for specific items, such as leases, should be used for those items.
By taking a look at the best judicial funding practices of other states, California can implement a few changes and begin to see progress in restoring and maintaining the fiscal health of its judicial system. The State of New York, for example, maintains its judicial funding budget separate from its general budgeting process and has set up an independent panel to review judicial salaries. In Missouri, business leaders have formed a broad coalition that became a lobbying force for the justice system and is making it clear that a thriving judicial system matters to everyone. In both states, progress in that regard is being made.
Joint Committee on the Arts
The Joint Committee on the Arts held an informational hearing on the role of arts in the classroom, and discussed successful strategies and best practices for funding arts education in California schools.
Faced with funding challenges, a growing number of school districts have cut back, and in some cases, eliminated dedicated arts programs (i.e., visual arts, music, dance and theatre) in their schools.
The Committee held the public hearing to explore the societal impacts of diminished arts education and funding, as well as to discuss the idea of “arts integration” and whether or not it can help bridge the increasing “creative gap” among public, private, and other types of schools. In particular, the Committee was interested in the idea of whether or not arts education plays a role in innovation. To further the discussion, the Committee invited expert testimony on these issues from arts, education and business leaders who shared their perspectives, research and recommendations.
Panelists included State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, Malissa Feruzzi Shriver, Chair of the California Arts Council and Sarah E. Murr, Community Investor in Arts and Culture at the Boeing Company.
In her written testimony, Ms. Murr of the Boeing Company wrote, “While IQ continues to increase with each generation, creativity scores are decreasing. IMB’s annual survey of 1,500 CEOs identified creativity as the number one leadership competency of the future. Arts education contributes to the development of a creative, communicator, self-disciplined, inquiring, motivated and [innovative] individual.”
Another panelist, John M. Eger, Chair of Communications and Public Policy at San Diego State University, argued in his written testimony, “We in the United States need to redesign our high school and college curricula in particular, to focus on preparing students for this new competition [the global economy]. Yet today, in the rush to confront the wave of outsourcing and offshoring, it is math and science alone that are urged upon young people, to our peril and that of future generations across the world.”
Senate Select Committee on Earthquake and Disaster Preparedness, Response and Recovery
The Senate Select Committee on Earthquake and Disaster Preparedness, Response and Recovery recently held a hearing in Castro Valley on seismic safety for California’s public schools and the state’s oversight of earthquake protections. The Committee discussed whether those protections – both in construction and in enforcement – are following state guidelines and ensuring the safety of school children and school employees. Committee Chair, Ellen Corbett, reminded all in attendance that recent earthquakes around the world have reminded Californians that we cannot be complacent about earthquake safety, particularly when it comes to ensuring the safety of school buildings and students.
Both a recent television investigative report and a state audit found that state regulators tasked with overseeing school construction had failed to ensure that buildings were safe under the mandates of the Field Act, a state seismic safety law passed in 1933. The Field Act gives seismic regulators strong oversight powers to ensure safety standards are met during each phase of school construction, from early design to the first day of classes.
California State Auditor Elaine Howle reported to the committee on her office’s audit, which found that, among other deficiencies, the Division of State Architect (DSA) within the Department of General Services (DGS) had lax enforcement authority and weak oversight procedures for 25 percent of the nearly 18,000 school design and construction projects that were completed in the last three fiscal years. The Auditor made recommendations to DGS that the division more regularly use the enforcement tools at its disposal to enforce compliance with the Field Act.
The State Architect, Chester “Chet” Widom, responded at the hearing to the Auditor’s report, saying that the Office of the State Architect (OSA) /DSA is investigating a number of approaches to eliminate the closing/approval of projects without certification of compliance. He also confirmed specific date deadlines for modifying the Division’s procedures for issuing orders for Field Act compliance and/or stop-work orders, for the process of preparing and sending letters to school districts for the classification of uncertified projects, and streamlining the outreach process to districts on those uncertified projects.
The committee also heard from representatives of the Office of School Public Construction and the State Allocation Board about procedures for application processing and selecting work in awarding new construction, remodeling and reconfiguration funding grants for eligible schools via the Seismic Mitigation Program (SMP). The SMP provides repair, reconstruction and replacement of the most “vulnerable” public school facilities, and was created following California voters’ approval of a 2006 ballot measure that gave the state authority to supply those grants.
Officials from local school districts in the Castro Valley area also testified about their respective efforts to ensure the seismic safety of their facilities, as well as share concerns about oversight and enforcement on the state level and how it affects policies and process at the local level. The Committee also heard from stakeholders that are affected and/or held accountable by Field Act compliance/non-compliance and enforcement/non-enforcement, including representatives of the professional engineers and construction trade groups.
Senator Corbett also used the hearing as an opportunity to showcase SB 1271, her legislation that will create a task force to strengthen the state’s oversight of earthquake protections for public schools. Under SB 1271, the task force will have until January 1, 2014, to study and recommend new building standards and policies to bolster school seismic safety. As of this report, SB 1271 has passed out of the Senate Governmental Organization Committee, and is awaiting a hearing in the Senate Appropriations Committee.