Topeka Kansas officials learned Wednesday that the state's projected budget shortfall has grown to $550 million, as the state Supreme Court announced that it has appointed a commission to hunt for ways to make the judicial branch more efficient.
The timing of the two events was a coincidence, but they underscored the state's ongoing financial struggles. The projected budget gap grew because the state's revenues in December fell short of expectations, and the new commission is largely a response to budget problems that forced court offices to close four extra days earlier this year.
The projected shortfall represents the gap between projected revenues and current spending commitments for the fiscal year that begins July 1, and it now represents about 9 percent of those commitments. Gov.-elect Sam Brownback and the Legislature will have to eliminate the gap once he takes office and lawmakers open their annual session, both Monday. Before December's revenues were tallied, the projected shortfall was shy of $500 million.
The new figure was contained in an internal Kansas Legislative Research Department report obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press, before the information began circulating to lawmakers and other officials.
"It's reflective of when you have an economy that's not going in the right direction," said Brownback spokeswoman Sherriene Jones-Sontag. "There won't be any good choices, but we're hopeful that folks in Kansas who care about issues like education and social services help the governor-elect get the state's economy growing again."
The Supreme Court's announcement about its commission followed its decision in August to examine caseloads throughout the state's judicial branch, generating information that takes into account which courts handle the largest number of complex cases. It's the first time the court system has undertaken such a detailed study.
Chief Justice Lawton Nuss said the commission can consider issues such as the number of court offices, their hours of operation, the use of technology to lower costs and increasing the system's flexibility in using its staff. He said the goals are to preserve Kansans' access to justice while delivering services as cost-effectively as possible.
The commission has 24 members from across the state, led by Court of Appeals Judge Patrick McAnany and includes members appointed by Brownback, outgoing Gov. Mark Parkinson and legislative leaders. It includes trial judges, attorneys, business owners and state officials.
Nuss said in an interview that the Supreme Court's members decided last summer to initiate a review of the court system's workload and its operations.
"We're tired of just reacting to events and having knee-jerk reactions," Nuss said. "We spend a lot of time on this, and it just goes from event to event. Let's do some long-range planning here, particularly concerning the financial situation."
The bulk of the judicial branch's $121 million is financed with state tax dollars, and most of its costs are associated with its payroll — leaving it relatively little flexibility when funds grow short. That's what led the Supreme Court to order unpaid days off for the court system's employees earlier this year.
Nuss said he's hoping the commission's work can serve as an example to other parts of state government. Brownback has already promised to look for efficiencies throughout the executive branch.
Kansas went through multiple rounds of belt-tightening in 2009, after the start of the Great Recession, but Parkinson pushed successfully last year for an increase in the state sales tax to prevent further budget cuts.
The state still has a projected shortfall largely because it has been using federal economic stimulus funds to prop up aid to public schools and social services, and those funds won't be available in the next fiscal year. Brownback and the Republican-controlled Legislature's leaders have ruled out another tax increase this year.
Before December's revenues were tallied, the projected deficit was approaching $500 million.
"The hole continues to grow because of the December receipts," said Alan Conroy, the Legislative Research Department's director.