EDITORIAL: Court funding

Chief Justice William Waller Jr. last week raised the unpleasant issue of a deficit appropriation to keep state chancery and circuit courts operating in May and June of the 2010 budget cycle.
Waller’s comments came during the Joint Legislative Budget Committee’s first meetings about Mississippi’s spending in fiscal year 2011 (it starts July 1, 2010). He represented all the state courts – chancery, circuit, appeals and the Supreme Court – in his appearance, but his concern focused on the system’s workhorses: chancery and circuit courts.
Waller told the committee that unless the Legislature appropriates an additional $1.7 million to offset budget cuts made earlier in the 2010 cycle, courts could shut down, halting judicial business for the final two months of the fiscal year.
Waller’s request for additional funds was not unique. Other state agencies also brought to the committee requests for additional or higher funding, presentations that rubbed against the grain of the austerity pressed on the state by the recession and declining tax revenue.
Gov. Barbour, who made budget cuts earlier in September for the current cycle, was not pleased with the requests coming from the agencies.
“My staff has informed me that many agencies have submitted requests for increased funding … Clearly the budget shortfall we face in FY 2011 will make it difficult, if not impossible, to maintain even level funding for most agencies. … Mississippi faces a budget shortfall anywhere between $175 million and $350 million for the current fiscal year. This revenue shortfall is likely to continue into FY 2011 and FY 2012,” Barbour cautioned.
He also said his executive budget, to be submitted by Nov. 15, “will, by necessity, be very different than what many state agencies requested …”
On a less rigid side, House Speaker Billy McCoy, noting that the judiciary is one of the three branches of government, said he hopes to meet the request, calling it “very meager.”
There’s doubtless some political difference in the statements of the two leaders, but the prospect of shutting down courts handling family issues, business cases, criminal cases, and countless issues of law involving individuals and their personal affairs, will be a powerful persuader.
Legislative staff members will crunch numbers during the next month, and the committee is set to return Nov. 3. The date certain for agreeing in the committee on a budget is Dec. 2.
Even so, the budget for 2010 was not finalized until the waning minutes of the 2009 budget year in June.
Barbour says the numbers won’t add up as things are going, but many changes can be made in the next nine months.

NEMS Daily Journal