Legislative panels approve bills to keep Kansas courts open

? Kansas legislators moved quickly Thursday to see that the state’s courts remain open despite a legal dispute that’s threatening the judiciary’s entire budget.

The House Appropriations Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee approved separate but identical bills to repeal a 2015 law on the court system’s budget enacted by Republicans. The law tied all funding for the courts through June 2017 to a failed effort to curb the Kansas Supreme Court’s administrative power.

Both chambers could vote on their bills next week. Each committee forwarded its measure on a unanimous voice vote, with its Republican chairman saying that lawmakers never intended to shut the courts down.

“It’s got to be fixed,” District Judge Daniel Creitz, of Allen County, chief judge for the four-county 31st Judicial District in southeast Kansas, told the House committee.

Republican legislators in 2014 enacted a law stripping the Supreme Court of its power to appoint the chief judges in each of the state’s 31 judicial districts, giving it to the local judges. Then, with a lawsuit against that change pending, GOP lawmakers passed the 2015 law, which declared the court system’s entire budget “null and void” if the 2014 law were struck down.

The Supreme Court last month ruled unanimously that the 2014 law violated the Kansas Constitution by infringing on the power granted to the justices to administer the state’s courts.

Even before the high court ruled, Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican, persuaded a judge in Neosho County — in Creitz’s district — to put the 2015 law on hold until March 15, giving legislators time to rewrite or repeal it.

Critics of the attempt to lessen the Supreme Court’s administrative authority saw it as an attack on the judiciary’s independence by GOP conservatives who’ve criticized multiple high court rulings, particularly ones requiring lawmakers to boost spending on public schools.

But supporters of the 2014 and 2015 laws said they were an attempt to give local judges more say in how their courts operate.

“No one at any time has ever wanted to threaten the existence of the judicial budget,” said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Jeff King, an Independence Republican and an architect of both laws.

But even if legislators speed a bill to Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s desk, the courts could face a reduction in the funding already approved for them as lawmakers wrestle with budget issues. The judiciary’s current budget is $133 million, and its funding is set to rise during the fiscal year beginning July 1 to $138 million, or by 3.6 percent.

The state faces a $190 million budget deficit for the next fiscal year. During the House committee’s meeting, conservative Republican Rep. Jerry Lunn, of Overland Park, said lawmakers are concerned that a volatile global economy is on the brink of a recession that could reduce state revenues and force it to cut spending.

“We may have to make adjustments on the fly,” he said.

Salaries account for 94 percent of the court system’s entire budget. Creitz said cuts in existing funding levels will force the Supreme Court to close courthouses and give employees outside of judges unpaid days off.