Mighty Joe Dunn Grills Wonks on Court Funding

State Sen. Joe Dunn, D-Santa Ana, displayed his considerable skills as a plaintiff lawyer and politician Tuesday when he grilled, in his typically respectful way, two administration officials about why the governor’s $68 billion infrastructure bond proposal includes just $1.8 billion for courts.

Dunn, a partner in the Newport Beach firm of Robinson, Calcagnie & Robinson, politely peppered the finance program directors at a Senate Judiciary Committee until they conceded that, well, that $1.8 billion wasn’t really derived from any specific formula. Paraphrased, the half-hour exchange went something like this:

Dunn: Obviously you didn’t just pull that $1.8 billion figure out of thin air.

James Tilton and Fred Klass, two Department of Finance program directors: Of course not. We based it on the department’s “past experiences? funding courts.

Dunn: Sure. And did you consult with the Administrative Office of the Courts? You know they’ve compiled a $9.8 billion needs list.

Tilton & Klass: Uh, no. We more or less considered what the judiciary needs to take title to more court facilities from counties in the coming years.

Dunn: Yes, but you know the state can’t take over a lot of those buildings until somebody pays big money to make them earthquake safe. So again, just help me out here, where does that $1.8 billion number come from?

Tilton & Klass: Well, everybody wanted something: roads, levees, jails, schools, courthouses. “This $1.8 billion was a piece that looked like it could be apportioned to the courts,? Klass said.

And then, like a lawyer turning to his jury, Dunn told the small audience of legislative staff, reporters, lobbyists and whatever policy wonks were watching on cable television that “if that’s even near true … it’s disconcerting, because in essence we’re saying, here’s $1.8 billion … and it’s not grounded in any actual current needs.?

Case closed? Hardly. Dunn and other advocates concede the courts were lucky to even be included in the bonds proposal considering the long list of other, more politically popular projects in need of money. No one expects lawmakers to add more money to the court’s take.

But Dunn made it clear Tuesday that he wants an acknowledgment from the administration that the $1.8 billion for courts should be considered a funding floor, not a ceiling. Dunn’s Judiciary Committee will get its first crack at the actual language in the governor’s courthouse-bond bill when it meets on Monday.

— Cheryl Miller

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