Hardesty: Changes needed in funding judicial branch
February 21, 2019
Supreme Court Justice Jim Hardesty told lawmakers on Thursday it's time to stop funding the judicial branch with Administrative Assessments — essentially traffic fines.
He said those assessments fluctuate significantly and the court has no way to deal with those issues. Over the past nine years, Hardesty said revenue from fines and fees imposed primarily on misdemeanor convictions has dropped from $30.8 million to $21.68 million. The courts get 60 percent of that with the rest dedicated to a variety of other programs.
"The most dramatic approach would be the state legislature assuming the risk of the upside and downside of administrative assessment fluctuations," Hardesty said.
He pointed out the Interim Finance Committee can deal with those fluctuations and the potential impacts of converting some minor misdemeanors to civil infractions instead of criminal cases and the impact of Marsey's Law, now part of the state constitution.
Civil infractions, he said, could either raise or reduce revenues since those bills would be turned over to collection.
Marsey's Law, he said, will have an impact because it mandates that restitution be taken off the top of those assessments.
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Hardesty said another alternative would be for the courts to increase their percentage of the fines and fees but he said that would seriously impact the "other folks" who rely on that money.
"The greater solution is to just put us in the General Fund and have the legislature assume the risk of political decisions or the people," he said.
Most of the current General Fund that goes into the judicial branch pays the salaries of the state's elected judges, a decision made decades ago to standardize what judges make. That accounts for just under half the total $137.6 million judicial branch budget.
Hardesty also asked lawmakers to consider an enhancement of about $3 million over the coming two-year budget cycle to provide significant pay raises for staff. That would cover raises ranging from 6 percent to 20 percent for 109 court staff. He said the study lawmakers approved two years ago showed seven of 15 job classifications are paid less than the same or similar positions in Carson City, Sparks, Clark, Elko and Washoe counties and Sonoma County Superior Court in California.
He said the salary disparities make it difficult to hire and retain qualified staff including clerks and attorneys because they must compete with those jurisdictions for staff.
The joint subcommittee of Assembly Ways and Means and Senate Finance committee members took no action on the recommendations.