By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal
JACKSON – Gov. Haley Barbour does not have the constitutional authority to cut the budget of the state’s court system, the nine-member Mississippi Supreme Court has found in a unanimous ruling.
In the order filed Friday, Supreme Court Chief Justice William Waller Jr. said the Legislature “has the duty to fund the judicial branch of government” and “the state fiscal officer shall not impose those reductions” made to the judiciary by Barbour earlier this month.
The judiciary, Waller wrote in the three-page ruling, is a “separate, coequal branch of government,” not an agency, and the cuts on the courts would be “inconsistent” with the state constitution.
Barbour has made three rounds of budget cuts this fiscal year because state tax collections have come in lower than projections. Most agencies, including the judiciary, are slated to be cut 8.2 percent by Barbour.
A spokesman for Barbour said the governor was out of state and had not seen the order.
Sen. Appropriations Committee Chair Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, also had not seen the order late Friday, but said, “I don’t have an answer.”
He added, “I don’t know how we would appeal that” since the Supreme Court is the state’s highest court.
The governor and the Legislature have been grappling with an unprecedented drop in state tax collections. The news did not get any better Friday.
Revenue collections for the month of January are $43 million, or 12.2 percent, below projections. For the first six months of the fiscal year, collections were 8.1 percent below projections.
In a statement, Barbour said the January collections were the worst of the fiscal year and the 17th consecutive month where collections did not meet projections. It also was the 14th consecutive month where collections were less than the previous month.
“I soon will be forced to look at whether additional cuts will be necessary in the current fiscal year beyond the $437 million in cuts already made,” Barbour said. “The law requires a balanced budget and I will uphold the law.”
But how the courts fit into the cuts is a point of contention.
Waller said the state Constitution requires that the courts be funded. He said the courts already have reduced support staff and office allowances, imposed a hiring freeze and postponed continuing education. Further reductions would prohibit the courts from hearing cases, he said.
He added the appropriation to the courts represent six-tenths of 1 percent of the state budget.
Sen. Gray Tollison, D-Oxford, said the Supreme Court order “certainly throws a wrench into this budget crisis. I have not looked at it closely, but I think there is something to be said… If the law says the governor can cut agencies, the courts are not an agency. They are a branch of government.”
Plus, Tollison said the courts’ constitutional protection would take precedence over any law giving the governor the authority to cut.
Tollison said he hopes the Supreme Court order would spur action to look at reserve funds to deal with some of the budget shortfalls.
Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or firstname.lastname@example.org.