Politics & Government

Kansas courts to close five days over budget issues

Closing state courts for five days will save about $1.2 million in the court budget, but could cost the state’s troubled unemployment budget as much as $750,000.

On Wednesday, Supreme Court Chief Justice Lawton Nuss announced that courts will be closed and employees, except judges, will be furloughed for five days between now and June 8, to deal with a $1.4 million shortfall that legislators didn’t handle before they ended their regular session Friday.

If all five furlough days take place, the state will lose roughly 60,000 hours of work time.

However, the furloughs are structured in such a way that most court employees will likely be eligible to claim a form of unemployment benefit that will pay roughly 50 to 60 percent of their salaries for the days they’re off, court officials said.

That money will come from the state unemployment fund, which had to borrow from the federal government during the recession and is still paying back more than $163 million of debt.

Although they will be able to get unemployment, court employees said Wednesday that the lost pay will be a hardship for many and they’d rather work. The situation will also disrupt scheduled vacations and could force workers to cancel medical appointments, the workers said.

Sedgwick County Chief Judge James Fleetwood noted that a blue-ribbon committee empaneled to study court workers’ salaries had recommended raises, not furloughs.

“Judicial staff is already overworked and underpaid,” he said. “And now we’re cutting their pay by a little more.”

For the lowest-paid workers, “this is devastating,” Fleetwood said.

The earliest that state lawmakers can address the issue will be April 25, when they return for their annual wrap-up session.

As things stand, courts will be closed and employees furloughed on April 13 and 27, May 11 and 25, and June 8.

Judges, whose salaries are set by law and who can’t be furloughed, will deal with urgent situations such as first arraignments for criminal defendants and court orders demanding immediate attention to protect the public or individuals. They will have to do their own paperwork, so services will be extremely limited, Fleetwood said.

Effect on workers

The court furloughs are structured to make the employees eligible for a program called shared work leave, which pays unemployment benefits when employers reduce hours rather than lay people off.

Because the courts haven’t filed their application for the program, the Department of Labor was unable to estimate what their benefits will be.

The salaries for the 1,500 workers to be furloughed add up to about $250,000 a day, Nuss said.

The last time court employees were put on furlough, two years ago, most got between 50 and 60 percent of salary for their time off, Fleetwood said.

But even with unemployment pay, the situation for workers could get difficult.

Judge’s assistant Marita McDaniel said for her, it won’t hurt too badly.

“My outlook on it is in today’s society, the bottom line is it’s good to have a job,” she said.

But, she added that she feels for some of her co-workers, especially low-level clerks who have children.

“For a single mom, $20 or $30 can make a big impact,” she said.

Deborah Keller, also a judge’s assistant, said the disruption goes beyond the pay loss.

To qualify for shared work leave, the employee has to work the other 32 hours in the work week. Vacation and sick time don’t count.

She’d scheduled vacation time for a trip to Biloxi, Miss., April 11-14. “I’m having to cancel that because we can’t take time off the day before a furlough day,” she said.

She said some of her co-workers have to reschedule dental work and medical appointments because any time off would mean they’d fall short of the 32-hour requirement.

Fleetwood said the situation is more frustrating than the furloughs two years ago, when the state was deep in recession and “it was all about the budget.”

This time, the money is there to pay the employees but tangled with a web of contentious issues in Topeka, including school finance, tax cuts, redistricting and “probably many, many different issues,” Fleetwood said.

“It’s more difficult for those of us who are kind of collateral damage to try … to anticipate all the scenarios,” he said.

Theoretically, if the budget negotiators can agree in their first couple of days back in Topeka, the furlough days could be limited to two instead of five, he said.

But he added, “I’m not overly positive that could take place.”

Budget breakdown

The court closures were ordered by the Supreme Court after a breakdown in budget negotiations at the Legislature on Friday.

The Senate had passed a separate bill to supplement state agency budgets that are scheduled to run out of money before the end of the fiscal year June 30.

The House, however, did not pass a supplemental budget bill and instead linked those expenditures to its larger budget bill.

House and Senate negotiators had agreed to fund courts for the rest of the year and appeared to be near agreement on the overall budget bill.

But talks broke down late Friday, mainly over an issue of where to get money to pay for $26 million in unanticipated school costs. Senate negotiators wanted that to come from general funds, while the House favored taking it out of highway funds.

Lawmakers involved in the budget process had differing views on the situation.

Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, said she thinks the Senate did its job when it passed a supplemental budget bill that would have covered the courts’ costs.

“The Senate clearly understood what was at stake,” McGinn said. “The House could have passed a supplemental bill and this wouldn’t have happened.”

House budget leaders, including Speaker Mike O’Neal, R-Hutchinson; Appropriations Committee Chairman Marc Rhoades, R-Newton; and Rep. Bill Feuerborn, D-Garnett, all questioned the need for furloughs.

They suggested the courts could have temporarily backfilled their budget with money from fees for attorney registration and educational programs, to give the Legislature more time to reach agreement.

“According to Legislative Research, there are funds available to the courts that can be expended to eliminate the furloughs,” Rhoades said in a written response to Eagle questions. “Accessing some of their unencumbered balances would have been a more thoughtful response, albeit less dramatic. If the goal is to meet financial obligations, accessing reserves for a few weeks is the obvious choice. Unnecessary furloughs only serve to create angst and stir up conflict.”

Feuerborn, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, said he thinks the House will either pass a supplemental allocation separately or reach accord on the budget shortly after returning to session.

He said that while it was “unfortunate” the House didn’t do a separate supplemental budget bill, there’s broad agreement in both the House and Senate to fund the courts’ needs for the rest of the year.

“I guess my feeling is the courts know they’re going to get that and I’m surprised how they’ve decided to deal with this,” he said.

Courts won’t ‘gamble’

In a letter to lawmakers, Nuss said the courts have already tapped the fee funds and need the remainder of the money to ensure the ability to make payroll in July.

He also said nobody knows if lawmakers will restore all the money that would be spent.

“That is a gamble,” he said. “And if we lose that gamble then the court closures will be crammed into a shorter timeframe, which will be harder on our employees.”

With such short notice, courts would have to disrupt numerous trials and hearings, which would be especially hard on large judicial districts, including Sedgwick County.

“My point is this: We simply cannot be assured that the money will come from the Legislature,” Nuss said. “What many people (thought) was a sure thing last Friday turned out not to be a sure thing.”

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