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Archive for Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Court fees rise because of budget issues

July 1, 2009, 2:54 p.m. Updated July 2, 2009, 1:01 a.m.

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— Getting married, filing a lawsuit and going to court for a traffic ticket in Kansas has become more expensive, another sign of budget problems that also could mean deeper cuts for schools and social services.

A $10 increase in most fees imposed by the state’s court system took effect Wednesday, the result of efforts by the Kansas Supreme Court to handle a budget shortfall. It will stay in effect through June 2010.

The state postponed a second round of aid payments to public school districts from June into July to help ease problems caused by lower-than-anticipated tax collections. It also delayed tax refunds from June to July, in continuing a practice it had started earlier.

The state began its 2010 fiscal year Wednesday, a day before Gov. Mark Parkinson was to announce a detailed plan to deal with a 2.3 percent shortfall in tax collections, leaving the state with $126 million less in revenues than expected.

The 2010 budget already has less spending financed with state tax dollars.

The governor has said another round of cuts is coming, although his staff declined to discussion specifics ahead of his news conference today. Budget Director Duane Goossen said the administration was still crunching numbers.

The court system’s current budget is $97 million, but the Supreme Court estimates the judicial branch needs an additional $15.9 million to continue current operations.

The surcharge on court fees is expected to raise about $5 million over the next year, and the judicial branch has had a hiring freeze in place since November. Those steps still might not be enough to prevent the courts from closing an extra week each month starting in January, because most of the judicial branch’s budget is salaries.

“We have made and will continue to make every effort to reduce expenditures as much as possible,” Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Davis said in a statement Wednesday. “As has always been the case, the judicial branch has no option other than reducing salary expenditures in order to meet a budget cut of any significance.”

Davis said the judicial branch will ask legislators to increase its budget when they reconvene in January and noted that it has applied for $2.6 million in federal funds.

Meanwhile, the cost of a marriage license has risen to $69 and filing a lawsuit in district court is now $166. Court costs associated with a traffic citation have risen to $86.

Legislators are out of session, leaving Parkinson to make decisions about avoiding a budget deficit. He has the power to impose cuts, but raising revenues would require him to call legislators into special session, something his staff has said he doesn’t plan to do.

Aid to public schools consumes about half of the state’s tax dollars. Public schools, the higher education system and social services account for about 88 percent of the $5.6 billion in spending financed by state revenues.

To buy time to deal with its financial problems, the state delayed $130 million worth of aid payments to its 293 school districts from June 1 until the end of the month. An additional $73 million in payments were due in the last 11 days of the month, and Goossen said they won’t be made until next week.

Some $31 million in income tax refunds due in June also should be paid next week, Goossen said.

But paying those bills will require some internal borrowing, with the state pulling money deposited in various funds into its main bank account. Parkinson plans to meet with legislative leaders Monday to get their permission, as required by state law.

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