Wednesday, March 16, 2016
Minton: Budget cuts could end Kentucky court operations as we know them
“Unfortunately – in spite of early indications to the contrary – the news is very grim,” he said in an email sent at 11 p.m. EDT to justices, judges, circuit court clerks and non-elected court personnel statewide.
Based on the amount appropriated by the House, the Judicial Branch would be short $36.3 million in Fiscal Year 2017 and $40.6 million in FY 2018.
“This means we’re facing a $76.9 million shortfall for the biennium on top of the 49 percent overall budget reduction the court system has endured since 2008,” Chief Justice Minton said.
“The consequences of the House version of the Judicial Branch budget, if enacted, can only be described as catastrophic,” he said. “Because personnel costs make up 87 percent of our budget, the shortfall will have a significant impact on our non-elected employees.
“The Kentucky state court system – considered among the strongest in the country – would no longer be able to operate as we know it today.”
Chief Justice Minton called the amount the House appropriated for the Judicial Branch budget “discouraging in light of our intensive efforts to detail what our structural imbalance and these extreme cuts would do to court operations. Through meetings, phone calls and testimony before the House Budget Review Subcommittee, I repeatedly asked that the Judicial Branch be exempt from the 9 percent cuts in FY 17 and FY 18 that the governor proposed.
“While we had a lot of support from House members for full funding of the Judicial Branch budget, that didn’t happen,” he said.
The House’s proposed budget bill did exempt the Judicial Branch from the 4.5 percent cut for the remainder of FY 2016, which the governor is requiring from many state agencies. To have returned $9.4 million to the General Fund, the court system could not have met payroll and would have had to shut down statewide for approximately three weeks.
The House version of the budget bill adds language to raise the salaries of circuit court clerks to full pay parity with county officials although the Judicial Branch did not request that funding. The bill excludes judges and non-elected court personnel from any salary increases.
“This is the second budget cycle that the House has specifically shut out judges from any pay increases in spite of the Judicial Branch making improved judicial salaries a top priority in our budget requests,” Chief Justice Minton said. “This was very disappointing to me and to many of the judges I’m hearing from across the state.
“Kentucky judges have not had a significant salary adjustment in a decade and are among the lowest paid in the country. Our ability to attract high-caliber, experienced judges to the bench is becoming compromised.”
In anticipation of reduced funding, the Judicial Branch has already announced a statewide hiring freeze for non-elected court personnel effective March 11, 2016. Chief Justice Minton is also working with the Administrative Office of the Courts to determine what cost-saving measures to take next.
Chief Justice Minton said he will continue working with Senate leadership, which will be considering the budget bills in the next two weeks. “I’ve already been in contact with members of the Senate and I will also ask them to exempt the Judicial Branch from further cuts and restore an appropriate level of funding to the court system.
“Crippling the courts will have a ripple effect on our justice and law enforcement partners throughout the commonwealth,” he said. “I must continue to warn our legislators about the statewide ramifications of further deep cuts.”