The Third Branch
Director's column: Budget lapse would hamper courts
By A. John Voelker, Director of State Courts
|A. John Voelker|
As I stated in my speech at the Judicial Conference, I think the courts provide great value to the people of Wisconsin. The courts play a crucial role in the quality of life and the economic health of all Wisconsin communities. There are myriad reasons for this, but let me name just three.
First, businesses are attracted to places where the courts are able to fairly and timely resolve their disputes and the disputes of their employees and customers.
Second, independent, non-partisan courts contribute to the welfare of all the people and the political health of the state.
And third, the courts help keep our communities safe and peaceful by resolving criminal cases and settling disputes, including family disputes that cannot be resolved independently - all this for less than one percent of the state budget. As a third branch of government, our responsibilities are great, but our budget is small.
Unfortunately, the courts' ability to continue to provide this level of value could be significantly limited if the budget pending before the legislature is approved. The 2013-15 budget currently being considered by the Legislature includes a $17 million reduction to the courts' budget, which would be the largest reduction in court system history. We are in the process of determining how these cuts could be implemented, but I don't think any of the options are desirable.
The $17 million reduction would cut deep. There is very little flexibility in our budget because it is heavily driven by personnel and other fixed costs. For example, at $189 million over the biennium, the circuit courts' budget is 70 percent of total court system funding, and is primarily made up of elected judges and other statutorily mandated positions that can't be cut.
Also included in the 70 percent are payments to the counties. In our current budget we had to reduce county payments by an additional 10 percent to meet our lapse requirement. We may need to make additional reductions to counties' payments; the reductions being considered by the Legislature are two and a half times greater than the current budget.
We are asking the Joint Committee on Finance to delete $10.3 million of this lapse requirement. Let me explain why and how this large reduction in our budget occurred. Provisions of 2011 Act 10 required judges and employees to contribute more toward their own retirement and health insurance coverage. For court system employees, this added up to $10.3 million. Because we initially received that amount from the general fund to cover the costs in the 2011-13 budget, we ended up with a surplus of that amount. As a result, we will return these excess fringe benefit savings to the general fund by June 30 to close out the biennium.
Moving into the 2013-15 state budget being considered, employees will continue paying these added costs on their own, and accordingly, the court system will not receive that amount from the general fund. However, the 2013-15 budget under consideration would require the court system to continue lapsing the $10.3 million.
It is this $10.3 million additional reduction in the 2013-15 budget that really causes significant concern. The other $6.7 million reduction is considerable, but manageable.
The court system has taken numerous lapses and cuts over the last 14 years, and each time we have met our commitment. This has not occurred without sacrifice. But the lapse being considered is unprecedented and of a larger magnitude. As the Joint Committee on Finance and the Legislature begin budget deliberations in the coming weeks and months, it will be imperative that they understand the extent of the negative impact that these cuts will have on the operation of the courts around the state. No matter how capable our judges and staff, they cannot be effective unless adequate resources are provided. This communication effort, combined with on-going efforts with the Wisconsin Trial Judges Association to increase judicial compensation, will make for a very busy next couple of months. A critical next couple of months.Back to The Third Branch current issue