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Budget crisis forces Kansas to close courts on scattered Fridays

Plan ahead, call ahead and — most of all — try to avoid Fridays.

It might be the best advice for anyone who needs the Kansas courts this spring to get a marriage license, do title research or pay to get their driver’s license reinstated.

Legislative inaction on the state’s $14 billion budget is forcing a shutdown of the court system for five days during the next two months, and igniting another political spat between the conservative-leaning House and a more moderate Senate in the Legislature.

As a result, the courts will furlough 1,500 employees statewide, including about 300 in Wyandotte and Johnson counties. The furloughs do not extend to state judges because their salaries cannot be lowered under state law unless all state officers’ salaries are cut.

Wednesday’s announcement comes less than a week after the Legislature failed to pass a supplemental spending plan that would have given the courts $1.4 million to get through the rest of the fiscal year ending June 30.

“The court has looked at a number of available options and, frankly, all of them are lousy,” said Chief Justice Lawton Nuss in announcing the closings. “This is a decision that we did not make easily or lightly.”

The courts will close for five Fridays starting next week on April 13. The other dates are April 27, May 11, May 25 and June 8. And the fallout out will affect more than just lawyers, court clerks and secretaries.

The closings will touch everyone who may want to pay a traffic fine, get a marriage license or a protective order from abuse.

If it’s anything like 2010 — the last time the courts shut down because of budget problems — the closings could get messy.

“It was mass confusion for the people,” said Bill Burns, the district court administrator in Wyandotte County.

Court officials are urging the public to plan ahead and call the court if they have business that needs to be done on that day. For example:

•  Marriage licenses: While there is a three-day waiting period before a license can be issued, many pick it up the Friday before the weekend wedding, especially if they are from out of town.

•  Payments for restitution or garnishment of bank accounts will be delayed.

•  Anyone with a suspended drivers’ license who wants to pay a reinstatement fee will have a delay in the process.

•  Abstractors will not have access to the court records to review court cases to complete title work.

•  Anyone needing a protective order from abuse or stalking could face a delay in getting it filed with the court clerk.

A judge, however, will be available in the courthouse to sign emergency protective orders. But anyone needing an order will first be directed to the district’s attorney’s office in Johnson County and the sheriff’s office in Wyandotte County, court officials there said.

The decision to close the courts resulted from a legislative tussle over the state budget only hours before lawmakers were to set to adjourn last Friday for their annual “spring break.”

A rift apparently developed between the House and the Senate over how to pay for $24.6 million in unexpected costs faced by the state’s nearly 300 school districts.

The House had proposed funding schools from the state’s highway department. The Senate wanted to fund schools from the state general fund.

The compromise called for lawmakers to address the funding source when they returned from their break April 25. But House negotiators wanted senators to reconsider, and senators balked.

As part of the budget discussions, the state court system had counted on the Legislature to approve by March 31 a $1.4 million supplemental appropriation for this fiscal year.

Chief Justice Nuss had warned lawmakers in February that the courts needed the money or they would be closed and employees furloughed for five days. The courts needed the $1.4 million because they fell short of their expected revenues because of a decline in court filing fees.

Nuss said the courts couldn’t hold off on the closures until lawmakers returned April 25 to resume their budget debate.

“We simply cannot be assured that the money will come from the Legislature,” he said. “What many people thought was a sure thing last Friday, turned out not be a sure thing.”

House Speaker Mike O’Neal said last week the courts should dip into other funds until the Legislature can work out its budget impasse.

O’Neal, a Hutchinson Republican, reiterated that point Wednesday, issuing a statement saying that the courts have $8 million in other so-called “fee funds” to help cover their shortfall.

“The courts can and should use the funding they have available to them to manage cash flow until the Legislature approves a budget during the wrap-up session,” O’Neal said.

“The decision to furlough is, of course, the court’s to make,” O’Neal continued, “but I’m disappointed that the court is implementing furloughs that will impact non-judicial personnel when it is not necessary.”

Nuss acknowledged that there were other funds, but they are designated for specific purposes. One fund gets money from attorney registration fees, which are used for disciplining attorneys, a program for helping lawyers with substance abuse and depression, and a program for reimbursing clients who are victims of lawyer misconduct.

Another fund gets money from case filing fees, but state law requires that money go toward the training of court personnel, Nuss pointed out.

“Why would only attorneys have to pay to keep open the courts that belong to all the people?” he asked.

Meanwhile, Democrats used the court’s closing announcement as an opportunity to blast House Republican leadership for the budget breakdown.

“There is no excuse for the Legislature failing to pass a supplemental appropriation in its regular session so that these furloughs and closures would have been avoided,” said state Rep. Paul Davis, House minority leader and a Lawrence Democrat.

“The responsibility for these consequences rests solely on the shoulders of the House Republican leadership that decided to use the budget process to create political leverage, instead of fulfilling our obligation to fund the court system.”