Archive for Friday, March 15, 2002

Court takes budget in own hands

State officials question unprecedented order

March 15, 2002


— The state Supreme Court is imposing "emergency" fee increases, taking the extraordinary step of bypassing the Legislature to raise money the judicial branch says it needs to operate.

But some lawmakers questioned the court's authority to raise fees and collect the money without legislative approval, and State Treasurer Tim Shallenburger was having his office's attorneys review the move.

Under the court's order, announced Thursday, the cost of a marriage license will rise April 1 to $75 from the current $50. Most court fees will rise by $5, with the cost of filing a civil lawsuit increasing to $106.

The court never has issued such an order before, spokesman Ron Keefover said Thursday.

"Never in our state's history has the court system been brought to its knees financially," Keefover said.

Chief Justice Kay McFarland, in the order, cited the Supreme Court's "inherent power to do what is necessary to enable it to perform its mandated duties."

McFarland has warned that all state courts will have to shut down for three business days between now and June 30, the end of the current fiscal year, without an extra $600,000 to meet payroll. A supplemental appropriation has cleared the Senate and awaits House action.

Shallenburger, a former House speaker, is involved because the treasurer's office issues state checks and because the Supreme Court wants to set up a fund to hold the extra fee revenue.

"Circumventing the Legislature is serious business," Shallenburger said Thursday. "It seems kind of like a dangerous thing to start."

McFarland has also told lawmakers that the $81.2 million which Gov. Bill Graves proposed for the judiciary for fiscal 2003, starting July 1, is $3.5 million less than the system needs to meet its obligations.

Many legislators said they did not blame the Supreme Court for acting, given that the state is facing a $679 million gap between expected revenues and required spending over the next 15 months.

"It's apparent the Legislature will have grave difficulty in meeting the financial needs of the courts, and the courts need to look after themselves," said Senate Judiciary Chairman John Vratil, R-Leawood.

Legislators disagreed among themselves on whether the high court can legally raise docket fees.

Rep. Melvin Neufeld, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, suggested the court was usurping the Legislature's power to tax and appropriate money.

But House Judiciary Chairman Mike O'Neal, an attorney, said he believes the Supreme Court has the power to set docket fees.

The Kansas Constitution gives the Supreme Court general administrative authority over all state courts. Kansas law declares that the chief justice's responsibilities include "supervision of the personnel and financial affairs of the court system."

O'Neal, R-Hutchinson, said the court system historically has left funding matters to the Legislature.

"Would they absolutely have to? Probably not," O'Neal said. "What has happened is extraordinary. They have basically declared an emergency."

But even if legislators wanted to dispute the court's action, it is uncertain whether there is a forum for doing so.

"Are we going to sue them?" asked House Speaker Kent Glasscock, R-Manhattan. "Who are we going to appeal to? The Supreme Court? I'm not being flippant."

Judicial officials have complained for years that their budgets are tight while their caseloads rise.

Vacancies go unfilled for three months or more to save money in court offices. Last year, McFarland lacked a research attorney for several months.

Keefover said other states' top courts have simply ordered the state treasury to pay bills the courts incur.

A few legislators were concerned that higher court fees will hurt poor Kansans, especially those who want to get married.

"It looks like we're going to discourage marriages," said Sen. Stan Clark, R-Oakley.

But Sen. David Haley, D-Kansas City, said: "If you're really in love, $25 won't stop you."

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