Courts get last word on budget cuts

California’s Legislature is so polarized over the state budget that lawmakers in recent years have mostly kicked the problem down the road. But even when lawmakers do agree and the governor goes along, they don’t have the final say.

Judges do.

The state and federal courts have repeatedly intervened in the operation of California government, preventing budget cuts approved by legislators of both parties and even forcing the state to spend billions of dollars more than lawmakers approved.

The major rulings cover how much the state should pay doctors who care for the poor, the quality of health care in the state prisons, the wages paid to workers who provide services to the elderly and the disabled, subsidies for public transportation and psychiatric care for children. And there are many more – plus out-of-court settlements that also drive up costs, especially in education.

“It’s at least $5 billion just in court rulings,” said H.D. Palmer, deputy director of the Department of Finance.

The biggest of these is the case involving health care in the state prisons. About 10 years ago, legal advocates and inmates began suing the state in federal court, claiming that the care in the prisons was so bad that it represented cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the U.S. Constitution. A judge agreed and eventually appointed an independent overseer to improve conditions, essentially giving him a blank check to spend taxpayer dollars to fix the problem.

Since then, the cost of revamping prison health care services rose from $1.2 billion to $2.5 billon between 2005 and 2009, according to a report by the non-partisan Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO). And while costs declined a bit in the 2009-2010 budget year, the state is required to spend at least enough money to maintain improvements to its prison health care system.

A similar scenario played out in 1998 when the state was sued for not providing accurate mental health screening services for children eligible for the Medi-Cal program. In 2001, advocates won their case against the state, and by 2008 the federal court appointed a special master to oversee the program’s renovation. Costs soon skyrocketed, and there is little the Legislature can do about it.

Sometimes, though, the state can fight such court-imposed costs by filing appeals.

Recipients of In-Home Supportive Services, a program that delivers care to the elderly and the disabled in their own homes, filed a series of lawsuits against the state after the Legislature cut worker wages and restricted eligibility.

The plaintiffs prevailed in district court and a federal appeals court affirmed the court’s order. The court concluded that the wage cuts and eligibility restrictions would jeopardize economy, efficiency, quality, and access within the IHSS program. The state has appealed the decision a final decision has yet to be reached.

The issue of state worker furloughs has caused an ebb and flow of court rulings and state appeals, leading to over 30 court battles within the past three years.

From 2008 to 2009, various state departments filed a series of lawsuits challenging the Governor’s authority to put their workers on furlough. Then-Governor Schwarzenegger won several of these lawsuits, which upheld his ability to issue furloughs, including one lawsuit against Service Employees International Union (SEIU), one of California’s largest state employee unions.

But the courts did not uphold the Governor’s ability to furlough all state workers. The courts ruled that it was against state law to put employees of the State Compensation Insurance Fund (SCIF) on furlough. The California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA), the central union for police officers, also won their case against furloughs under the claim that they were a de facto salary cut. And the state Supreme Court, while ruling in favor of Schwarzenegger in one case, hinted broadly in its ruling that future governors would need legislative approval before imposing furloughs.

In 2008, the state legislature tried to cut Medi-Cal costs by slashing rates paid to doctors and other providers by 10 percent. A series of lawsuits filed by Medi-Cal advocates against the state brought the state to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that the cuts violated federal Medicaid standards of quality, economy, efficiency, and access to care. The courts also expanded the ruling to encompass the majority of Medi-Cal service providers not originally involved in the lawsuit.

Last year Schwarzenegger ran into a judicial roadblock when he tried to eliminate state funding for a child care program that seeks to help poor parents move from welfare to the workforce. A judge intervened, blocking the cuts temporarily. Now the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown are considering restoring the money – more than $200 million per year.

Two former governors – Pete Wilson and Arnold Schwarzenegger – were sued by the California Teachers Association in disputes over Proposition 98, the voter-approved constitutional amendment that sets minimum levels of spending for the schools. Both governors settled out of court in decisions that guaranteed billions of dollars in future funding for public education.

The courts’ intimate involvement in California’s finances could conceivably put judges in charge of the entire budget. If the voters reject Brown’s proposal to extend $11 billion in temporary taxes, the state will be forced to make spending cuts so deep that they cannot be implemented without violating one court order or another.

If that happens, the judges will have to face off with each other over whose ruling will stand and whose might be set aside because the state does not have enough money to satisfy them all.

X Close

Subscribe to Our Mailing List