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State’s judicial branch looks at ways to handle budget shortfall

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, Dec. 25, 2013, at 2:54 p.m.
  • Updated Friday, Dec. 27, 2013, at 12:13 p.m.

Kansas court employees could face 10 days of unpaid furlough in fiscal year 2015 as the state’s judicial branch tries to deal with an $8.25 million budget shortfall, a committee appointed to study the finances has concluded.

The furloughs would cut $2.5 million from the deficit, the committee said, while much of the rest would come from delayed judicial appointments, reduced training hours, the elimination of 19.5 court service officer positions and by leaving more than 100 court positions unfilled.

“It will have a devastating impact,” said Kansas Court of Appeals Judge Karen Arnold-Burger, who chaired the committee. “If they do it in one fell swoop, it closes the courthouses for two weeks.”

Sedgwick County Chief Judge James Fleetwood said the impact would be felt locally.

“If something doesn’t happen, we’re going to have a very difficult situation,” he said.

When the Kansas Legislature approved its two-year state budget this year, it allocated $132.2 million for the courts in fiscal 2014 and $135.2 million in fiscal 2015. Court officials said the shortfall was partly the result of other funds that will be available in 2014 but not in 2015.

The Kansas Supreme Court in October appointed a committee to look for ways to deal with the expected shortfall, and the committee forwarded its recommendations to Chief Justice Lawton Nuss on Dec. 13. Among them:

• Leave 120 non-judicial positions unfilled for a savings of $3.75 million. Since 2009, the committee report said, the judicial branch has maintained about 80 unfilled positions, which has saved about $2.5 million annually. Adding 40 more unfilled positions would increase the annual savings by $1.25 million. The positions include court reporters, court clerks, administrative assistants and court service officers.

• Eliminating 19.5 full-time positions for court service officers who perform duties that are not mandated by law. That would save an estimated $1.08 million. The officers perform such duties as screening applicants for protection from abuse orders, supervising offenders placed on diversion and supervising children who are placed in state custody.

• Delaying the filling of judge vacancies by leaving the positions open for four months before filling them. That would save $438,000 a year.

The committee also recommended reducing by $250,000 a grant to Kansas Legal Services. Employees of that agency, which provides legal help for people who can’t afford to hire lawyers, could be forced to take nine furlough days to make up for the lost funding.

Fleetwood said that unless the 2014 Legislature finds more funds for the courts, the shortfall could lead to delays in obtaining everything from marriage licenses to protection from abuse orders.

And, he said, “we would be talking about speedy trials issues for criminal cases,” he said. “I would anticipate that it could take four or five months just to get the dockets back in shape.”

Arnold-Burger said she had no way of knowing whether the 2014 Legislature will increase its funding after seeing the report. She said the judicial branch has little latitude when trying to cut its budget.

“When 96 percent of the court budget is salary, there is no way to absorb the cost without cutting people or closing courts,” she said.

Reach Hurst Laviana at 316-268-6499 or hlaviana@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @hlaviana.

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