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Bar News - December 17, 2014


$5M Surplus Found in Judicial Branch Budget

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Following concerns that the NH Judicial Branch would have to lay off 138 non-judicial full-time workers to cut $3.75 million from its current budget, as the governor has requested, court officials recently discovered about $5 million in lapsed Judicial Branch funds that can be used to achieve the reduction.

Gov. Maggie Hassan this fall asked state agencies and the judicial branch to cut general fund spending through the end of the current fiscal year to close an anticipated $30 million budget gap. Because the state’s general fund is the source of more than 93 percent of the Judicial Branch’s operating budget (most state government entities receive federal funding and/or have other external sources of financial support), Don Goodnow, director of the NH Administrative Office of the Courts, says the justice system was being asked to disproportionately shoulder the burden.

“The courts receive 5.2 percent of the state general fund appropriations and yet the $3,754,546 (in cuts the governor requested) represents 12.5 percent of the $30 million challenge,” Goodnow wrote in a Nov. 6 letter to State Budget Director Meredith Telus.

But at a Nov. 17 meeting, Telus and Lucy Hodder, the governor’s legal counsel, urged Goodnow to examine lapsed, or unused, funds in the Judicial Branch budget as a way to fulfill the governor’s request. Goodnow says the Judicial Branch is now projecting a $2.7 million lapse in 2015 budget appropriations, in addition to a projected $2.4 million surplus in appropriations for employee health benefits, or about 10.6 percent of the budgeted amount.

The amount budgeted for health benefits was determined by applying rates provided by the NH Department of Administrative Services to salary lines in the Judicial Branch budget, according to Goodnow, and was adjusted following the release of new rates in early 2013.

“We are unsure why actuals are falling so far short of budgeted amounts and we wonder if other parts of state government used the same benefits rates and are reporting similar surpluses in their benefit lines,” Goodnow wrote in a Dec. 3 letter to Telus and Hodder.

As of early December, however, the current budget situation for the courts remained uncertain.

“We’re still in discussions with the governor to find out where we stand and where the governor stands,” Goodnow said. The Judicial Branch plans to work with the governor and her staff on a solution to the projected shortfall, “but we don’t want to do that at the expense of our own staff or at the expense of what the constitution requires us to do in terms of services to litigants and lawyers.”

Meanwhile, the Judicial Branch has submitted its budget request for the FY2016-17 biennium, as well as a requested capital appropriation of $3.1 million for the NH e-Court Project. The proposed FY2016 budget of $83.8 milion represents a 2.9 percent increase over the current year. The request for $83.6 million for FY2017 would be a .2 percent decrease from the proposed FY2016 budget amount.

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