Kentucky House approves cuts to state judicial system

Monica Kast

The Kentucky House of Representatives passed a bill on March 16 that cuts significant funding from Kentucky’s judicial branch and could have negative effects on the state’s judicial workers, according to the Supreme Court of Kentucky.

House Bill 306 is an act “making appropriations for the operations, maintenance, support, and functioning of the Judicial Brand of the government of the Commonwealth of Kentucky and its various officers, boards, commissions, subdivisions, and other state-supported activities,” according to the bill.

House Bill 306 passed with a 51-to-48 vote on March 16 and outlines the budget and funding for the judicial branch for fiscal years 2016 through 2018.

According to the bill, which contains the judicial branch budgets for fiscal years 2014 through 2016, the total judicial branch budget for 2014-2015 was $386.9 million. The total judicial branch budget for 2015-2016 was $390.7 million.

House Bill 306 lists the total judicial branch budget for 2016-2017 as $388.2 million and for 2017-2018 as $384.9 million.

“This means we’re facing a $76.9 million shortfall for the biennium on top of the 49 percent overall budget reduction the court system has endured since 2008,” Chief Justice of Kentucky John Minton, Jr., said in a press release.

Minton also said that because personnel costs make up a significant portion of the budget, “the shortfall will have a significant impact on our nonelected employees.”

The judicial branch had announced a statewide hiring freeze for nonelected positions effective March 11 to prepare for the cuts.

Minton brought up his concerns to the Senate Appropriations and Revenue Committee on Monday. He urged the committee to reject House Bill 306 and said that if the bill was not rejected, the court system “would no longer be able to operate as we know it today.”

“The consequences of the House version of the Judicial Branch budget, if enacted, can only be described as catastrophic,” Minton said.

Minton also said the decrease in funds for salaries would damage the state’s ability to attract experienced and well-educated judges.

According to a salary review from the National Center for State Courts, Kentucky higher court judges had the fourth lowest pay in the nation in 2015. Kentucky’s higher court judges made $135,504 compared to the national average of $171,306.

Before Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin announced his budget cuts, Minton said the judicial branch was already at risk for major cuts. With the approval of House Bill 306, those cuts became more severe.

“Our projected shortfall, even before the governor’s net reductions, was $52 million over the next biennium,” Minton said before the Senate Appropriations and Revenue Committee. “With the governor’s proposed net reductions, the judicial branch was facing a shortfall of $76.2 million during the next two years … the House version of our budget leaves the judicial branch with an even greater shortfall of $76.9 million over the biennium.”

According to the Kentucky Legislature’s website, Bill 306 is currently in the Senate Appropriations and Revenue Committee.