Kansas GOP leader responds to court budget concerns

09/29/2013 1:51 PM

09/29/2013 1:51 PM

A top Senate Republican is suggesting to a court-appointed budget panel that there are other options available to prevent cuts in operations of the Kansas judicial system.

Senate Vice President Jeff King sent a letter dated Friday to members of a newly appointed budget council that will look at ways to increase funding and improve efficiencies within the state court system. King, who is also chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in the letter that not everything that has been said about the court budget is accurate.

“Though some of you may have heard otherwise, the budget sky is not falling,” King wrote.

Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Lawton Nuss announced Sept. 19 that he was forming the 10-member advisory council to review the possible consequences of current spending levels, including closing court offices and furloughing judicial branch employees. The council’s first meeting is Oct. 7 in Topeka.

King said his letter was intended to inform the council of what efforts were done by a similar commission appointed in 2010 that looked at a variety of judicial issues, including funding. King said he wasn’t trying to stymie the new council’s work, but instead he wanted to make it aware of what has been recommended but not implemented by policymakers.

“To the extent that it is viewed as an olive branch, I welcome that,” King said. “More positive relations between the judicial branch and the legislative branch would be helpful to everyone, especially the people of Kansas.”

Helen Pedigo, spokeswoman for the judicial branch, said Friday she wasn’t sure if the council members had received the letter and declined to comment.

The courts have felt a budget squeeze since the Great Recession, which started in 2007. Legal filing fees have risen to help fill the gap, but the Supreme Court ordered furloughs in 2010 and 2012.

The current judicial branch budget calls for more than $127 million in spending through June 30, 2014. Legislators also approved the budget for fiscal year 2015 with a slight increase to almost $128 million. Both amounts are 3 percent below the $132 million appropriated to the courts in 2013. Salaries account for 96 percent of the judicial branch’s spending annually.

King said the court’s budget for 2015 wasn’t cut from the current spending levels and that legislators didn’t have a funding request in front of them from the courts at the time the budget was settled. He said he expected legislators to revisit the 2015 court budget in light of the recent request made by Nuss.

“These issues often seem more polarizing than they are,” King said.

He wrote in his letter that the Supreme Court could “promote” legislation seeking to dedicate all court docket fees to fund the judicial branch, as well as rules allowing increases in fees, as was recommended by the earlier commission.

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