By Andy Metzger
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
WORCESTER — Gov. Charlie Baker’s budget would lead to more severe service cuts in the Judiciary than during the “darkest days” of the Great Recession, requiring hundreds of layoffs and court closures, Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants told House and Senate budget writers Wednesday.
“It would be even worse than the darkest days of the last financial crisis, when one in three of our courthouses had to restrict public hours just to process cases,” Gants warned at a hearing at Quinsigamond Community College.
The governor’s proposed $603 million Trial Court budget is $4 million less than the amount available to the court in fiscal 2015, and $40 million less than the amount that would be needed to maintain the same level of service, Gants said.
According to a court official, the 6,537 employees included in the Trial Court’s proposed budget would drop to 6,000 under Baker’s plan.
Trial Court Chief Justice Paula Carey said the Judiciary is “leaner” than ever, though the courts need additional funding to build a domestic violence registry and provide training required by a 2014 law, and she noted a surge in opioid addictions.
“The Commonwealth is currently facing the most serious drug addiction problem that certainly we’ve seen in my lifetime,” Carey said.
Trial Court Administrator Harry Spence told the News Service the budget drivers are post-hiring-freeze additions of court officers and probation officers, collective bargaining costs and step increases in contracts, statutorily mandated raises for judges, and rent increases.
“Through careful consideration the Governor fixed the inherited $1.8 billion deficit without raising taxes or fees, while investing in education and transportation to foster economic growth and the administration is pleased to propose essentially the same level of funding for the courts as last year,” Baker press secretary Elizabeth Guyton said in a statement.
The Bakers administration’s estimates indicate the governor’s proposal would put the Trial Court $2 million below the amount that will be spent in fiscal 2015. The administration attributes $26 million of the Judiciary’s $40 million request to new hires or pay increases.
Spence told lawmakers how the Trial Court has had to reduce staff even as the executive branch increased in size in recent years. From fiscal 2008 to fiscal 2014, the Judiciary lost 16.5 percent of its staffing while other branches of government increased staffing 4.9 percent, he said.
From fiscal 2008 to fiscal 2015 the Judiciary’s budget grew 4.6 percent while other branches grew 37.3 percent, said Spence, who said technological advancements have blunted the impact of lean budgets.
“The only reason we can survive today with the number of clerical staff we have – greatly reduced by 26 percent, I think it was – is because of the automation that’s occurred so far,” said Spence, who said he hoped the courts would be 85 percent digitized in about three years. Spence said a “minor” legislative change would allow the courts to switch to electronic records retention, digitizing “vast rooms full of files over time.”
Gants told the News Service he understands why Baker did not understand the impact his budget recommendation would have on the Judiciary and said he has since met with the Office of Administration and Finance.
“The governor had one month with four snow days to pull together a budget,” said the chief justice, who acknowledged he has a “share of responsibility for failures to communicate” the Judiciary’s budgetary situation.
During the 2013 budget-writing process, Gants’s predecessor as chief justice voiced similar frustration with Judiciary funding levels.
“I know that you’re accustomed to hearing everyone come through and say, ‘We need more money.’ Well, we need more money, but we’re not a state agency. And I want to emphasize that with you. We’re a branch of government,” Roderick Ireland told legislative budget writers at the time. “In theory, we’re an independent branch of government.”
Spence also told lawmakers Wednesday that court officials plan to use operating funds to upgrade court cameras and are developing a 20-year capital plan, including a “significant” bond authorization, which will be presented to the Legislature later this year. Spence, who has discussed closing lightly used courthouses before, also said lawmakers have the last word on whether a courthouse will close.
“We cannot close a courthouse without your approval, any courthouse without your approval,” Spence said.