FRANKFORT — Kentucky's top judge asked lawmakers Wednesday to boost the budget for the state's court system by 20 percent over the next two years despite a $1.5 billion General Fund shortfall during the next two years.
Without a significant funding boost — needed to operate dozens of new courthouses, pay for ballooning judicial retirement expenses and put more court documents online — Kentucky Supreme Court Justice John D. Minton Jr. said popular programs such as the Kentucky Drug Court will face cuts.
He also raised the possibility that courthouses could close for 15 days in the next fiscal year.
"So I come here to plead our case for the funding the judicial branch needs to fulfill the constitutional obligation ... so the courts of the commonwealth remain open so that justice is administered without delay," Minton told the House Budget Review Subcommittee on Judiciary.
Subcommittee chairman Jesse Crenshaw, D-Lexington, said he didn't know how lawmakers would find extra money for the judicial branch. "It will be very, very difficult," he said.
Minton's budget request is $111 million more than the Administrative Office of the Courts' current $531.5 million biennial budget, which was cut $30 million during the last two years. Gov. Steve Beshear has recommended that lawmakers increase the court system's budget by $76 million during the next two years.
The increase would provide a $5.7 million bump for the judicial retirement system and $28 million extra to start paying off bonds on 38 judicial centers that will open from 2010 through 2012.
The courthouse construction program, which already has spent $880 million, was designed to put a new courthouse in every county under the leadership of former Chief Justice Joseph Lambert.
Crenshaw asked why more courthouses weren't renovated where it was appropriate.
"I think renovation was looked at," Minton said. "It took us 10 years to develop some level of expertise, to see what courthouses needed to look like."
Minton said the judicial branch was the first in state government to lay off employees. Since 2008, the courts have cut 166 positions, some through attrition, for $7 million in savings, he said.
The Administrative Office of the Courts also has blocked any new programs or program expansions; eliminated most Blackberries, cell phones and pagers; and stopped most educational conferences.
Minton said other possible cuts could include eliminating all court reporters, all Teen Court and Mock Trial programs, the Family and Juvenile Drug Court programs, and reducing drug court supplies.
Court officials estimate that the drug court program has saved the state $26 million in prison costs since 1996, and a conditional release program has saved an additional $30.8 million in the past five years.
Minton said a 15-day furlough of non-elected employees would result in shutting courthouses for 15 days.
"I cannot quantify for you today the magnitude of the impact of closing courthouse doors and what it would have on our dockets, our county jails and our economy of the commonwealth in general," he said.