Courts throughout the state will likely be forced to shut down for a dozen days next year, after the governor partially reneged on a promise to help fix a legislative error.
“At this point, it looks like it’s inevitable,” said Robert Fairchild, chief Douglas County District Court judge.
Fairchild said the situation, which would force 1,399 non-judicial court employees in the state to take 12 days off without pay, is already creating morale problems for the 38 who work in Douglas County.
“It’s obviously a disaster,” Fairchild said on Wednesday. “You can imagine the effect that it’d have on your household if you were told, ‘Woops, you have a job but you can’t work and won’t get paid for one day every two weeks.’”
As part of a wider effort to balance the state budget this week, Gov. Mark Parkinson said he would only ask lawmakers, when they reconvene in January, to restore $5 million in funding cuts they mistakenly made to the 2010 general fund budget last spring. The governor initially planned to advocate for a full $8 million.
Budget cuts could delay DNA testing
The budget cuts outlined by the governor on Monday have far-reaching effects in the court system and other judicial entities in Kansas.
Among them, Attorney General Steve Six said the cuts would compound the challenges faced by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation’s DNA database, which has a backlog of more than 38,000 DNA samples.
While no cases in Douglas County have been backlogged, District Attorney Charles Branson said he expected the cuts would increase the turnaround time for DNA testing and could cause additional delays in cases relying on the tests.
The Legislature trimmed the judicial branch budget, under the assumption the funds could be made up through surcharges on docket fees, without realizing the fees were capped by other legislation, court officials said.
“The governor approached developing his budget plan with several criteria, including a notion that every area of state government would have to share in the solution to our revenue shortfall,” said Beth Martino, Parkinson’s spokeswoman. “With that in mind, the recommendation for the judicial branch was reduced, along with the budgets of dozens of other state agencies.”
Robert Davis, Kansas Supreme Court chief justice, said the $3 million hole left by the governor will translate into 12 days of furlough for court workers. If the legislature does not reverse its error, six weeks of furlough could be ordered, which court officials said would cause disastrous problems for the state’s judicial system.
“Obviously we’re worried about the employees, but our main concern is making sure we can get our job done,” Fairchild said. “None of the paperwork will get processed, we won’t be able to collect money, we won’t have court reporters, we won’t have administrative assistants.”
The state’s court system has already taken cost-cutting measures, including a hiring freeze and the elimination of temporary hours. In Douglas County, the court clerk’s office has been closed during lunch hours to pick up some slack.
Salaries and employee benefits consume 98 percent of the court system’s $97 million appropriation of state tax dollars.
Davis said the changes have increased workloads and added stress to the state’s non-judicial court workers, which include court clerks, administrators and court reporters.
“This is just going to make things that much worse,” Fairchild said of the looming furlough situation. He said all chief district judges in the state would meet Dec. 11, when they should learn more and discuss how to respond.
It’s possible lawmakers will ignore the governor’s request when they reconvene in January and fully restore funding for the judicial system, as they grapple with a host of budget issue.
At a recent legislative forum at the Kansas Bar Association, legislators from both sides of the aisle said they were committed to making the changes needed to cover the judiciary shortfall when the 2010 session starts.
“Everyone is steadfast we keep our courthouses open,” said House Democratic Leader Paul Davis of Lawrence.
House Speaker Mike O’Neal, R-Hutchinson, also said he was committed to remedying the situation.