In mid-December, the Court Budget Advisory Council made its report to the Kansas Supreme Court. The full report is available online at the Kansas Courts website: www.kscourts.org. Every attorney in Kansas who interacts with state courts should take the time to read the report.
The council was made up of capable and intelligent people from across Kansas. They were given the unenviable task of figuring out how to trim $8.25 million from the judicial branch’s FY2015 budget. This was one of those appointments that would lead to a big sigh of relief when you didn’t get the call from Chief Justice Nuss to participate!
Since the judicial branch budget is 96 percent salary expense for personnel, the only way to eliminate 8 percent of the total budget is to negatively impact people. The judicial branch has already been operating on a reduced budget, and fortunately (if there can be anything labeled as fortunate in the present predicament) the $8.25 million figure includes some expenditures that are not being made now. The fact remains, however, that the funding that has been approved for FY2015 by the Kansas legislature is 8.25 percent below what has been requested in a base budget request by the judicial branch.
[...] the KBA does need to carefully consider if it wants to offer its input to the judicial branch as it decides how to structure the coming furloughs.
The council’s first recommendation is to recommend the elimination of 19.5 FTE court service officer positions across the state. These positions currently perform duties that are not required by current statute. Examples of this include screening of PFA and PFS applications, conducting domestic mediations, conducting criminal history reviews prior to pleas and sentencing, to name a few. Savings equal $1.08 million in FY2015.
The next recommendation deals with the current number of authorized but unfilled staff positions across the state. This amounts to $2.5 million. These vacancies create hardship where they occur and lead to increased workloads on the staff that remains. The council recommends an increase in this number of up to a total of 120 authorized but unfilled staff positions. This will save $3.75 million in FY2015.
The third recommendation from the council is to delay by 120 days filling district judge and magistrate judge positions when they become vacant. Based on anticipated retirements of four district judges and four magistrate judges, this strategy would save approximately $440,000 in FY2015.
The final recommendation is that of unpaid staff furloughs. To reach the $8.25 million budget cut will require 12 unpaid furlough days at a savings of $250,000 per day. We have seen this strategy utilized before when there were funding and budget issues for the judicial branch. Obviously, this will have a huge impact on non-judicial employees of the judicial branch, amounting to a 4 percent pay cut. Keep in mind that these same employees have not seen a raise in a number of years and many are already actively looking for other, more stable, employment. If any of the other budget cutting strategies are not implemented, there will need to be further furloughs that will save enough money to equal the savings from the other strategies that were not used.
The KBA Board of Governors will be discussing whether or not it should weigh in on the "how do you like your furloughs” question.
So, the purpose of the title of this column now becomes apparent, as a group Kansas attorneys across the state are faced with the very real question of: "How do you like your furloughs?” There are a number of answers to this question, but the bar of Kansas and thus the KBA does need to carefully consider if it wants to offer its input to the judicial branch as it decides how to structure the coming furloughs.
In the past, furloughs were spread out among multiple pay periods and multiple months so as to not leave employees with any one period of time when they had no income. This was also done to try to minimize the impact of the furloughs on the public and business interests that use the courts on a daily basis.
Another option is not to close the courts but furlough different staff members in each court at different times. This allows the courts to stay open, but then dramatically increases the workload on everyone else in each court. In areas where courts are already understaffed due to the current backlog of authorized but unfilled positions, this practice would significantly increase the opportunity for error and delay in court operations.
Perhaps the most controversial option would be to wait until the end of the fiscal year approaches when a more exact determination of what the budget shortfall will actually be. Once that number has been determined, then the courts would just shut down for the time period required to reach the needed savings. At a minimum, if all the other savings strategies named by the council were implemented, the courts would be closed 12 days, or two-and-a-half weeks. That time period would come in June, the last month of the fiscal year. If some of the other strategies to save money were not used, then the court shutdown would have to be longer. This option is controversial because it would create chaos for individuals, businesses, law enforcement, attorneys, and any other users of the Kansas court system. On a positive note, this option would allow laid off court staff to apply for unemployment benefits since the layoff would be for a longer period. One other result of this option might be to get the attention of many Kansas legislators who seem not to have the interest or desire to properly fund the third and co-equal branch of Kansas government.
It is interesting to note that the Kansas Association of District Court Clerks and Administrators has voted to support the block furlough at the end of the year option. It is also significant that the Kansas District Judges Association has also voted to support the block furlough approach, even though the brunt of providing emergency services during the furlough period would fall on them.
At the time this column is being written, the KBA has no position on the options available to implement furloughs in the judicial branch. The KBA’s position is that the judicial branch should be funded at a minimum at the base budget request level. The reasons why the judicial branch should be funded at the enhanced budget request level are material for another column or two, as are the other longer term budget strategies that the Budget Council considered but could not recommend due to how quickly they could be implemented. These strategies are numerous and include a number of things that would significantly alter the current practice of law in the courts of Kansas. (Eliminating all court reporters is but one example.)
FY2015 will be upon us in less than five months. The KBA Board of Governors will be discussing whether or not it should weigh in on the "how do you like your furloughs” question. Please consider this column as my request that the KBA membership let its regional Board of Governors members, KBA staff, and KBA officers know how you feel regarding this issue. If, by some miracle, the legislature adds supplemental funding so that furloughs are not required, then this exercise will have been for naught. If that miracle does not materialize, then all of us will be facing the certainty of furloughs, so the answer to the question of how they are implemented is one that the lawyers of Kansas have a very real interest in.
Originally published in The Journal of the Kansas Bar Association, vol. 83, no. 2 (February 2014).