Kentucky Supreme Court Chief Justice John Minton outlined a series of grim consequences if the state House’s proposed budget cuts to the Judicial Branch are approved, including laying off 600 people and trimming programs that keep people out of jail.
“I’m done with being cool and calm and collected. The hair that I have left is on fire,” Minton said to the Senate Appropriations Committee on Monday.
The chief justice made similar predictions in response to Gov. Matt Bevin’s proposed budget, which cut Judicial Branch spending by 9 percent over the next two years and 4.5 percent this fiscal year. He said such a reduction would force the courts to shut down for three weeks to make payroll.
The House version of the budget would restore the cuts made in the current fiscal year but leave in reductions for the coming biennium.
Minton called the new proposal “inexplicable” and “catastrophic,” saying the courts would have to eliminate hundreds of jobs. Meanwhile, the House budget would give raises to elected Circuit Court clerks — salary increases between $8,400 and $12,000 per year.
“If the House version is not fixed, hundreds of non-elected court personnel across the state will face the real possibility of losing their jobs while the elected Circuit Court clerks receive a significant pay raise,” Minton said.
The state’s pretrial services program, in which officers supervise criminal defendants out on bail, would have to be eliminated according to the chief justice, putting 17,000 criminal defendants back in jail.
“There won’t be enough pretrial officers to make the release recommendations to the judge,” he said. “The counties will bear the cost of this additional incarceration.”
Also at risk is the state’s drug court program, which puts those convicted of drug crimes in treatment programs instead of jail. Minton said 2,500 drug court participants would either have to be incarcerated or supervised by a different agency under the proposed cuts.
“Our drug-ravaged communities would lose a proven treatment option that they so desperately need,” Minton said.
Minton recognized that the courts’ budget woes are partially due to an “aggressive” $880 million courthouse-building campaign approved between 2005 and 2008 — before Minton was elected chief justice.
But the courts’ funding has been dwindling for years now, partially due to cuts and budgetary plundering that sent money back into the state’s general fund.
Minton said the Judicial Branch’s estimated shortfall was $52 million before Bevin’s cuts. The governor’s proposed budget leaves them $76.2 million short, and the deficit is even greater under the House’s budget — $76.9 million.
Sen. Chris McDaniel, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, was noncommittal about meeting Minton’s request but expressed optimism.
“We’re certainly looking at everything we can do to help the chief now,” McDaniel said.
The Senate is writing its own budget proposal, and legislative leaders say they want to pass a final version by March 30.