Judiciary asks Nevada Legislature for ‘block grant’ instead of line item budget
Supreme Court Justice Jim Hardesty renewed the judicial branch pitch for more control over its budget on Wednesday, arguing the legislative and executive branches don’t have the power to dictate how the courts actually spend the money.
“We are requesting again that the Legislature follow the law and our constitution regarding the unclassified pay bill,” he told members of the money committees. “We are a branch of government, not a state agency. Under our branch of government, the determination of how to allocate the funds you appropriate is a function of the Supreme Court.”
The judiciary has long argued while lawmakers set the total funding appropriated to them, they should get it as sort of a block grant, leaving them the power to decide how that appropriation is spent. Hardesty pointed out until the 1977 Legislature, judicial branch staff salaries were not set in the unclassified pay bill but left to the judiciary. Hardesty said the record isn’t clear exactly what happened but in that Legislature, “low and behold, Senate Bill 233 included for the first time the Supreme Court central staff and various employees in the unclassified pay bill.”
He said that practice has continued since 1977, “over the objections of the Supreme Court.” He added the court doesn’t even get any real input into what those salaries are when the pay bill is introduced in the last week of the legislative session.
The other key issue raised in the review of the judiciary’s proposed budget is the continuing slump in administrative assessment revenues that come from fees assessed primarily against traffic and other tickets issued by law enforcement. Those assessments make up half the judiciary’s $124 million biennial budget.
Hardesty said the problem isn’t just the difficulties collecting those assessments but that tickets “are not being written” or, because of the recession, being written off by judges.
In addition, he said those assessments go first to juvenile courts then the municipal and justice courts, then the state General Fund before the judicial branch gets its cut.
He said if a defendant can’t afford the full ticket price, there often isn’t anything left by the time the judiciary gets its cut.
Assessment revenue has dropped from $24.5 million in 2014 to $21.4 million last year — 13 percent — and is projected to continue decreasing this coming biennium.
Assemblyman Chris Edwards said he thinks it would be better if all the fines and assessment money went to the General Fund and the judiciary’s budgets were paid out of the General Fund to provide the courts with a stable revenue stream. Hardesty said Utah and some other states do that.
He said in the meantime, the Supreme Court is asking for an increase in the judiciary’s share of assessment money from the current 51 to 61 percent, conceding “all that does is take money away from the other accounts that depend on administrative assessments.”
He said another approach lawmakers could take is to look at the actual fines imposed on traffic and other offenses and where that money currently goes. Fines currently stay with the local jurisdictions.
More than half of the judicial branch’s $80.5 million General Fund budget goes to pay salaries of elected judges, primarily district judges.