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The judicial branch is asking for a nearly 6 percent increase, a shade over $33 million, to its $274.1 million budget.

Minnesota courts seek $33 million boost as deficit looms

Rep. Paul Thissen joins fellow House members in the Pledge of Allegiance at the State Capitol as the 2013 Legislative session opened Jan. 8. Shortly after, Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, was elected House speaker. (AP photo: Jim Mone)

Chief justice: Time to invest in judicial branch

The state of Minnesota is facing a $1.1 billion budget deficit that must be resolved this legislative session.

But that hole isn’t stopping the judicial branch from asking for a nearly 6 percent increase, a shade over $33 million, to its $274.1 million budget.

In a letter to Gov. Mark Dayton and Minnesota Management & Budget Commissioner James Schowalter, Chief Justice Lorie Gildea said that after several years in which the court’s budget was either cut or frozen, now is the time for investment in the judicial branch. She said the investment is necessary to continue with several initiatives that are already under way aimed at reducing costs and improving public service.

Specifically, the new money would be used to pay for salary increases for judges and staff and to increase the employer contribution to the state’s pension fund for judges. The retirement fund is short of money, and the judicial branch anticipates it will have to increase its contribution to the fund by 2 percent.

Civil Legal Services gets a state appropriation as part of the judicial branch budget. The group is asking for an increase in its budget to make up for cuts in services and layoffs in staff over the past several years, said Cathy Haukedahl, the executive director of Mid-Minnesota Legal Assistance. She said the agency’s staff is down 20 percent since 2009 and legal aid absorbed a nearly 7 percent cut during the last budget cycle. The money would be used to help an additional 3,000 families get legal help for issue like housing, safety from domestic violence, accessing income and heath care support.  The total request is $13.1 million up from $11 million in the last budget cycle.

“In 2009 we turned away one out of every two eligible clients. In 2012 we had to turn away two out of every three,” Haukedahl said. “The fact is we all really need the money. We have done what we could to do more with less, but at some point one just has to do less with less. We are simply not helping as many people.”

The board of public defense budget is $67.5 million. That group is asking for $6.9 million more for next year and $11.5 million more in 2015. The money would be used to hire new attorneys, pay for staff raises and to help implement and electronic case management system.

“Doctors don’t use paper files anymore,” said Kevin Kajer, the chief administrator for the board of public defense. “We need something that will allow us to access video and audio files from the prosecution, to store that information and to make it part of the court record. We are asking for money to help get this  off the ground.”

Judges and staff have not had a salary increase in more than four years, and Minnesota’s judges now rank in the bottom third in pay across the country, Gildea said. The low pay makes it hard to recruit and retain branch employees.

“[W]e therefore seek an increase in our budget to recognize the importance and necessity of the judicial branch’s constitutionally required work,” Gildea wrote.

To tamp down the court’s requested budget, the branch decided to fund the state’s conversion to electronic court records — called eCourtMN — by holding open several employee positions.

The branch has supporters in the newly minted DFL majorities in both legislative bodies. Speaker of the House Paul Thissen of Minneapolis has said that after years of cutting the courts, the branch is now on a shoestring budget and has serious problems meeting its obligations to the public.

Rep. John Lesch of St. Paul leads the Civil Law Committee and is also an assistant St. Paul city attorney. He promised that the courts and public defenders would get the opportunity to make the case for more funding at his committee.

“It’s absolutely critical that we find some money for the courts, and that includes the public defenders,” he said. “That will be a priority for me. The courts have been a bipartisan effort for as long as I have been a legislator, but the branch has been sacrificed on the same altar of ‘no new taxes,’ and now we have Republicans and Democrats acknowledging the courts and the PDS are getting abused.”

Rep. Debra Hilstrom of Brooklyn Center leads the Judiciary Finance and Policy Committee. She has invited representatives from different divisions within the judicial branch to speak to the committee early on in the session to explain what services they provide and how they spend their budgets.  She said the hearings are an opportunity for legislators to evaluate the court’s budget request.

“One of the roles of these hearings is to ask, ‘Is it possible to streamline these services or to do things differently?’ We have all these different courts and services the branch offers. How do they make the process better? Does it save us money? Should we be doing more of it?” she said.

But simply asking for more money is no guarantee it will be delivered. Sen. Ron Latz of St. Louis Park leads the Judiciary Committee. He pointed out that legislators have gone much longer without a pay raise than court employees and judges.

“In my judgment, judges deserve more than they are being paid. But whether we can do that remains to be seen,” he said. “I will do my best to wall off the courts as best I can to any further cuts, but we are still in a deficit situation.”

Rep. Michael Paymar of St. Paul leads the Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee. He said every legislator will argue that the agency or branch that reports to his or her committee is a core government function, and often groups like the courts and education get pitted against one another as legislators work to decide where money is spent. He said he understands the frustration many have with the unpredictable way the way state government is funded. It is hard for the courts and other departments to devise a plan, because no one knows how much money will be available from year to year.

“The first time I chaired this committee we had a surplus, and we could do some great things and spent money on Drug Courts and offender re-entry programs that were important and smart ways to fight crime and save money,” he said. “The next session we hit a wall with a big deficit, and we had to roll back a lot of those investments. We have had about a decade now of significant cuts. There is pent-up demand to bring things back to close to what they once were.”

Correction

An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that the governor had recommended a one-time budget increase for the state court system of $33 million. The recommendation was for a permanent increase that would carry over into the next biennium.

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