Louisiana Judicial Budget Advances Despite Concern Over Cuts
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — A scaled-back financing plan for the Louisiana Supreme Court won passage in the House on its second try Monday, after lawmakers pledged that additional money might be added to the budget as they continue negotiating over taxes.
The House voted 84-1 for the proposal to spend $164 million on the high court and some other parts of the judiciary in the budget year that begins July 1, a drop from $171 million spent this year. That's also well below the $180 million request that Chief Justice Bernette Johnson told lawmakers is necessary to fund "not only an independent judiciary, but also an effective one."
"We are cognizant of today's budgetary challenges and competing priorities, and let me stress to you that we do not deem ourselves immune from the financial difficulties facing our state," Johnson told a joint gathering of the House and Senate in her annual state of the judiciary address.
But she added that the court has delayed filling open jobs, sought to renegotiate contracts with vendors and restricted consulting contracts to cut costs in recent years. She reminded lawmakers that spending on the judicial system is less than 1 percent of the state's total budget.
"Adequate funding of the judicial branch is your legislative responsibility, and it's critical to ensure an independent state judiciary," Johnson said.
The judiciary has some rising costs because of five years of pay hikes for Louisiana's judges, approved by lawmakers in 2013.
Lawmakers initially stalled the scaled-back budget bill last week, leaving it two votes short of passage amid concerns the Supreme Court justices said it could lead to devastating cuts to court programs.
But Monday, Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry, the Republican who handles the budget bills in the House, said he spoke with the justices about the need to advance a financing measure for the judiciary to the Senate.
"They see the importance of a bill moving forward," Henry said.
Lawmakers are grappling with a $648 million budget gap next year, tied to the expiration of temporary taxes. Henry said House leaders pledged that if lawmakers raise "additional revenue," they'll add money to the courts' budget for specific programs. Gov. John Bel Edwards is expected to call a special session sometime in May, trying to win support for replacement taxes to fill holes in the budget.
The Supreme Court justices warned the reductions proposed could damage the drug court program, re-entry services for prisoners and the ability to provide court-appointed advocates for children.
More broadly, Johnson urged lawmakers to reconsider Louisiana's method of financing much of the district court system through fines and fees charged on people for various offenses. She said that creates a disparate system where people are treated differently depending on their judicial district. And she suggested lawmakers should weigh changes before pending federal lawsuits force them.
"There are serious problems and inequities in our present funding scheme, problems and inequities that harm our citizens," Johnson said.
She asked the Legislature to consider creating a unified judiciary, funded entirely through state appropriations. She acknowledged such a debate would take time — particularly in a state struggling with budget problems.
"You have planted a seed today," replied Senate President John Alario, a Republican. "It's going to take a lot of watering and fertilizer and nurturing to bring that to harvest, but it's food for thought and I'm glad you brought it up."
House Bill 698: www.legis.la.gov
– by AP reporter Melinda Deslatte