MONTGOMERY — Alabama’s Supreme Court chief justice says the court fee increases paid by the public and approved by lawmakers last year are not generating as much revenue as expected, leaving the branch of government with a funding shortfall.
Roy Moore said the judicial system will need at least $19 million more in fiscal 2014 than Gov. Robert Bentley is suggesting it receives from the state’s general fund. Without the extra money, Moore said personnel cuts will be unavoidable.
“(The court fee increase) didn’t bail us out; it didn’t cover what was cut,” Moore said. “I’m not saying it is anyone’s fault, but it isn’t working.”
Lawmakers and Bentley cut the judicial system’s general fund allocation by about $25 million last year.
Fee increases were expected to generate about $20 million a year for the judicial administrative fund, which pays for court operations. Moore said the fee increases are only bringing in about $1 million monthly, leaving a $13 million shortfall in the judicial branch.
Add in what he expects to be a $6 million increase in costs for 2014, including having to pay more for employees’ health insurance and retirees’ pensions, and Moore said he’ll be $19 million short under Bentley’s proposed level funding.
Bentley said Thursday morning the judicial branch is just like the executive and legislative branches in “having difficulty with our budgets.”
“We will continue to work with the chief justice,” Bentley said. “We understand the difficulties they are going through, just like every other agency.”
Norris Green, director of the Legislative Fiscal Office, said his office is in the process of looking at the revenue generated by the fee increases.
Bentley said that the $20 million figure was just an estimate.
“We still don’t know how much (the fees) will generate this year,” the governor said.
Moore, re-elected last year, sent Bentley a letter dated Fed. 8 stating the funding would result in staff cuts. He also questioned Bentley’s proposal to give teachers 2 percent raises.
“It is very difficult to explain to the many hard working and dedicated court employees and officials of this state why your budget proposes more money for new programs and certain employee salary raises, while court employees have not received salary increases since 2008 and may well be faced with losing their jobs,” Moore said. “A loss of over $19 million in funding may force a workforce reduction of 25 percent. This is neither fair nor prudent and violates the Alabama Constitution’s requirement for adequate funding.”
Raises for teachers may be possible in 2014 because the state’s education budget is funded by different and more profitable tax sources than is the general fund. That’s something Moore said would be solved by having one budget for both education and non-education agencies.
“Common sense dictates that we have one budget,” he said.
In his letter to Bentley, Moore states the court system has lost 182 employees because of budget cuts since he was first in office in 2000.
About 95 percent of the judicial branch’s costs are personnel, said Rich Hobson, administrative director of courts. There are now about 1,800 employees working in the court system statewide, about 1,200 of them in circuit clerk’s offices.
“We are already doing more with less,” Moore told the governor. “We cannot be cut further. Therefore, I will vigorously take this matter to the Alabama Legislature and the people of this state in the legislative session.”
Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, chairman of the Senate committee that oversees the general fund budget, said he wants to learn more about the court fee revenue, how it’s being collected and whether it is trending upward.
Moore’s request for more money in 2014 is one of several in front of lawmakers as they look at Bentley’s proposed budgets and prepare their own.
Aside from the $79.4 million from the general fund the governor wants to allocate to the Unified Judicial System — including circuit clerks, district and circuit courts and the Administrative Office of Courts — it also receives about $88 million in earmarked funds.
The court fee bill last year raised court costs for a traffic ticket by $25. Costs for filing a civil lawsuit increased by $45, and the court fee for a criminal case increased by $40. The cost of going to small claims court went up $15.
When asked how estimates were derived about the amount of money the increased fees would generate, Moore said he wasn’t the one who did the math.
Mary Sell can be reached at mary.sell@TimesDaily.com.