Topeka Courts across Kansas could be forced to close an extra 3 1/2 weeks under a proposed state budget approved Friday by House members who remain upset over judicial rulings on education funding.
The House sliced $3.7 million from funds allocated to the judicial branch for the fiscal year beginning July 1, reducing them by 3.7 percent overall, to less than $108 million.
Also, the Kansas Supreme Court would not be allowed to raise the cost of filing lawsuits and other fees to help fund its budget, as it has during the past four years.
If the money isn't restored, courts will have to cut their payrolls for nonjudge employees, because the state constitution won't allow a cut in judges' salaries during existing terms of office, said Ron Keefover, a judicial branch spokesman. Also, salaries account for most of the judicial budget.
The lost dollars translate to 17 days' worth of expenses for the entire court system, Keefover said, creating the likelihood of shorter work weeks.
"It's not the judges who are going to suffer the brunt of this," Keefover said Friday. "It's the state employees working for the judicial branch."
Judicial branch officials had complained for years that legislators shorted the courts on funding when in 2002, the Supreme Court imposed "emergency" surcharges on fees to raise additional funds. Some legislators have argued the court needed their permission, saying the surcharges represented a tax.
Many legislators, particularly conservative Republicans, also were angered by last year's Supreme Court rulings on education funding, which required legislators to increase aid to public schools by $290 million, or more than 10 percent and forced a special legislative session.
Some lawmakers saw the House's action on the judiciary's budget as payback.
"It's just another way to insult the court," said Rep. Marti Crow, D-Leavenworth, an attorney.
The House's action is far from definitive, however. Senators are working on a proposed budget that would permit the Supreme Court to continue levying its surcharges, and negotiators for the two chambers will write the final version of any spending plan.
"I've always thought the surcharge was unconstitutional. I don't think the court has authority to levy a tax, and that's what it is," said Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt, R-Independence, an attorney. "But if we're going to challenge that authority, I think we should probably be responsible and replace the money."
Legislators have made other attempts to clip the Supreme Court, focused on amending the constitution to rein in its power or change how justices are selected.
Earlier this month, the Senate rejected a proposal to require its chamber to confirm the governor's appointees to the court. Next week, the House is expected to debate a proposed amendment to clarify that only the Legislature has the power to appropriate money - a measure aimed at keeping the court from ordering that a specific amount be spent on schools or any other budget item.
"There's a lot of resentment in the House," said Speaker Doug Mays, R-Topeka. "Some people are willing to act on that resentment."