Chief justice says courts may close under proposed judicial budget cuts, but Bevin calls that step unnecessary, inappropriate

02/23/2016 09:35 PM

FRANKFORT — Gov. Matt Bevin’s proposed two-year budget presents a potential “constitutional crisis” for Kentucky’s judicial branch, state Supreme Court Chief Justice John D. Minton Jr. told lawmakers on the House Budget Review Subcommittee on Justice and Judiciary on Tuesday.

Like many areas of state government, the judicial branch of government faces 4.5 percent cuts in the current fiscal year that will carry over into 9 percent spending reductions over the biennium.

Minton appealed to legislators to exempt the judicial branch in Bevin’s proposed budget cuts, saying that progress in the state’s courts could be jeopardized due to lack of funding.

“I must deliver to the General Assembly from the chief justice of the commonwealth this very clear and sobering warning: Unless the legislature exempts the court of justice from the budget reductions the governor has proposed for his executive branch agencies, the judicial branch of state government will not be able to perform its constitutional and statutory functions,” Minton said in his testimony.

Exactly how Minton would handle the first-year governor’s proposed spending reductions as a whole remains unclear, but he said the judicial branch might need to shutter courthouses across the state for three weeks before June 30, the last day of the fiscal year, to come up with the 4.5 percent cuts in the current year.

“That is $9.4 million from our General Fund in the current fiscal year,” he said. “To make that happen, mister chairman, we could not meet our payroll obligations and would likely have to shut down the courts, the entire court system, for approximately three weeks between now and June 30 in order to accomplish that cut.”

But Bevin said shuttering courtrooms across the state “is neither necessary, nor an appropriate response” to a 9 percent budget reduction.

“Kentucky has serious financial issues to deal with, and the solution will come as a result of budgetary sacrifice on the part of many,” Bevin said in a statement. “To imply otherwise is a disservice to the taxpayers of Kentucky and disregards the very real legal, moral and financial obligation to pay our debts.”

The courts, like many areas of state government, have weathered budget reductions since the 2008 budget cycle at the onset of the recession, with Minton saying that the judicial branch’s funding has been slashed by 49 percent in that timeframe.

Minton said a structurally imbalanced budget has the judicial branch wrestling with a $26 million budget shortfall in each year of the biennium before factoring in Bevin’s proposed cuts.

With the spending reductions included, Minton said the judicial branch’s budget shortfall would reach $38.1 million.

The judicial branch’s restricted funds have been used to help balance finances, he said, and the fund’s balance has dropped from $40 million in 2009 to a projected $500,000 in the upcoming fiscal year. Bevin’s budget includes $4.3 million in the biennium to replace some of those expended funds.

The chief justice said Bevin’s budget proposal for the judicial branch would likely require reductions in personnel, which makes up 87 percent of the branch’s budget. That could jeopardize programs like Drug Court and pretrial services.

“An extreme measure such as eliminating 425 jobs — that’s 12.6 percent of our eligible workforce — would only save a few million dollars, and yet a reduction of that magnitude would likely force us to eliminate some or all of our statutory programs,” Minton said.

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Minton said he had brought his concerns to Bevin, “and I think the governor is listening to what I’ve had to say. I think he understands, and he’s reached out to me, and I fully expect that he will respond positively.”

Rep. Kevin Sinnettee, an Ashland Democrat and chairman of the budget review panel, said the budget “doesn’t allow (justice) to work,” and House Speaker Greg Stumbo signaled that the lower chamber will limit the impact of budget cuts in the judicial branch.

Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said he was unsure whether the House’s version of the biennial budget will exclude the judicial branch from spending reductions or diminish them.

“None of us want to see our court systems have to close,” he told reporters before gaveling in the House on Tuesday. “It’s a mandated part, obviously, of our constitutional duties to provide free access to the courts of justice in the commonwealth, so I don’t think that’s going to happen. We’re going to try to relieve (Minton) of having to worry about that.”


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