Chief Justice Minton warns Senate panel of catastrophic results for judicial branch if proposed funding plan moves forward

03/21/2016 04:19 PM

FRANKFORT – Kentucky Supreme Court Chief Justice John Minton says that unless the Judicial Branch is exempted from budget reductions passed by the House, court operations would be crippled and the system will “no longer continue to operate as we know it.”

Minton told members of the Senate Committee on Appropriations and Revenue on Monday that the projected shortfall, even before the governors’ net reductions, was $52 million over the next biennium. And with the governor’s proposed net reductions, the Judicial Branch was facing a shortfall of $76 million during the next two years.

But, with the House version of the budget, Minton pointed out that the Judicial Branch will have an even greater shortfall of $76.9 million over the biennium.

Even though Gov. Bevin called for a 4.5 percent cut for FY 2016, the House proposal called for no cuts to the Judicial Branch for the rest of FY 2016, which equates to $9.4 million, which will be used for payroll.

In FY 2017 and FY 2018, the House cuts go even deeper than the Governor’s with 9 percent cuts each year plus earmarks that would have to be funded by the courts.

Minton pointed out that personnel costs make up 87 percent of the Judicial Branch budget and cuts this deep would require staff reduction statewide. The Kentucky Constitution restricts the Judicial Branch from changing the salaries of the 403 elected justices, judges and circuit court clerks during their terms which means that non-elected personnel would bear the brunt of any reductions.

“The House’s proposed budget would require us to eliminate approximately 600 jobs, which would be almost 18 percent of our eligible workforce,” Minton said. “And even a reduction of that magnitude would not be enough to cover the shortfall.”

Minton said that if the House version of the budget remains in place, many of the programs which have proved effective in fighting the drug problem in the state would be eliminated because the courts could no longer afford to finance them.

“There’s a very real likelihood we’ll be forced to end our nationally-recognized Drug Court program,” Minton said. “That means approximately 2,500 Drug Court participants would be incarcerated or require supervision from the Division of Probation and Parole. And it means our drug-ravaged communities would lose a proven treatment option they desperately need.”

Minton also told committee members that one of the reasons for the significant shortfall is that the Justice Branch operation budget is structurally imbalanced, meaning that expenditures have exceeded appropriations for budgets enacted by the General Assembly since 2008. Minton further said that at the direction of the General Assembly, the Judicial Branch has been required to use all of its Restricted Fund carry-forward to meet current obligations.

Minton says the problem is that the restricted funds are now gone.

“Since 2009, the Judicial Branch’s Restricted Fund carry-forward has been down from $40 million to a projected carry-forward of only $500,000 for FY 2017,” Minton said. “A $500,000 carry-forward for a total budget in excess of $370 million is completely inadequate and demonstrates the extremely tight margin for court operations. The Judicial Branch has experienced a succession of deep cuts that have brought us to the crisis we face today.”

Minton wanted to make it clear to the committee that the Judicial Branch must maintain adequate funding to provide its current level of services or the consequences will be “catastrophic.”

Committee chair Sen. Chris McDaniel admitted that he was disappointed that the House budget cuts to the Judicial Branch could have an effect on drug treatment programs that came about as a result of an anti-heroin bill in 2015.

“We just finished work in April of last year on Senate Bill 192, which as you know, Rep. Overly had an amendment that went on to that bill and was actively engaged in that bill,” McDaniel said. “It’s a huge issue in northern Kentucky and it’s an issue across the state. And to turn your back on the work we did last session is just unconscionable to me.”


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