Kansas courts are losing judges and other workers because of low pay, the head of the state’s judicial branch told lawmakers on Wednesday.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Lawton Nuss said the judicial system is losing efficiency because of increased turnover among experienced judges and employees.
Besides retirement, the primary reason employees depart is low compensation, he said during the annual State of the Judiciary address, adding that pay often makes finding new employees more difficult.
The judicial branch in November asked for an additional $20 million for pay increases. The Legislature has not yet set spending levels, but the request comes as the state faces a budget gap of more than $1 billion over the next two years.
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Every judicial branch job classification is below the market pay rate, Nuss said, and more than 25 percent of employees have starting salaries below the federal poverty level for a family of four, or $24,600.
The chief justice made only a glancing reference to the budget problems facing the state, saying he is aware the Legislature is facing many challenges, “maybe some of the biggest ones ever.”
Nuss provided lawmakers with several statistics in an effort to show court employees are underpaid.
A compensation study conducted by the National Center for State Courts found that the salaries of magistrate judges need to be raised by 22 percent to meet market level. And judicial branch employees have received just one cost of living adjustment since 2008 – a 2 percent increase in 2014, Nuss said.
Almost one-third of judicial branch workers need to work other jobs to make ends meet, Nuss said.
“It is human nature for people to devote their time and money to those things that are most valuable to them. So all Kansans may want to ask themselves: What value do we place on the administration of justice in our state?” Nuss said.
The House Appropriations Committee chairman, Rep. Troy Waymaster, R-Bunker Hill, said his committee would consider the judicial budget next week. At the moment, the state can’t afford the increase, he said.
Waymaster said workers in all sectors of government haven’t received pay raises in several years, stemming from difficulties arising first from the recession and now from continued budget problems.
“It’s cascading across all state government in the state of Kansas, not just the judiciary,” Waymaster said.
But Rep. Kathy Wolfe Moore, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, expressed a different view. Because lawmakers are looking to raise taxes this session, the Legislature could design a tax policy that allows for pay increases and other priorities, she said.
“I think it is possible,” Wolfe Moore said.
Nuss’ address came after voters retained all five justices who were on the ballot in November. They survived efforts by anti-abortion groups and others to oust some of the justices.
The court is also considering several major cases. The justices recently issued a ruling that found the state’s funding system for schools inadequate. On Thursday, the court will hear arguments in a challenge to abortion restrictions passed in 2015.
Nuss didn’t address either the school funding or abortion case in his speech and also would not comment on them when speaking to reporters afterward.
“I steer clear of subjects like that,” Nuss said.