While acknowledging the challenges the state faces in closing a huge budget gap, Chief Justice John T. Broderick, Jr., is asking for more money for the courts. Not much more, he says, but a small amount that he believes could make a big difference for the smallest branch of state government.
Broderick notes that the Judicial Branch budget accounts for only 1.3 percent of general fund revenue out of a $5.4 billion budget. In the coming fiscal year, the Governorís budget recommendation would require the court to operate on less money than it received for the current fiscal year. This, the Chief Justice says, would not be sufficient to allow the courts to fulfill their mission.
Broderick is making his case to lawmakers struggling to put together a budget while revenues are slumping and social needs are rising. He and other court officials have made several appearances before the House Finance Committee. On Wednesday, March 25 (at 10 a.m.), he will deliver a "State of the Judiciary" speech before the entire legislature.
In a interview, Broderick said that the Governorís judicial branch budget proposal for fiscal year 2010, totaling $68.3 million, rests on several assumptions:
Ė Enactment of a pending bill, HB 609, that would create a dedicated revenue source for technology updates and upgrades for the judicial branch. The budget assumes the judicial branch would receive approximately $1.8 million annually from this source. The budget plan does not provide for any additional funding for technology.
Ė The court can achieve savings beginning July 1, 2009 by consolidating various district courts.
Ė If three fulltime district court judicial vacancies are filled, the Judicial Branch could eliminate substantially all per diem judge time for district court and family division judges.
The Chief Justice is concerned that these assumptions may not all be realized. And even if all of these assumptions did come to pass, the court will still be approximately $1.9 million short on the money it needs for operating an effective and efficient court system, Broderick believes.
"Both the Legislature and the Governor have been attentive to our needs and are understanding of our concerns," Broderick said. "We need, however, to do better than the Governorís budget proposal or we are at risk of making matters worse." He said the results of the NH Bar member e-mail survey (see related article on page 1) indicate that the court system is not doing well now.
"We are such a small part of the budget. $1 million for us can make a big difference," he said, adding that he hopes the money can be found to fill 15 now-vacant positions. Currently, the courts have about 614 non-judicial employees with 40 unfilled positions. By the end of June 2010, that number is projected to rise to 50 vacancies under the Governorís budget plan.
The Governorís budget calls for filling three judicial vacancies each in the superior court, the district court, and the probate court. Over $1 million in savings is projected for FY 10 by consolidations of court locations in Milford, Hillsborough, New London, Plaistow, Claremont, Hooksett, Keene and Colebrook.
Broderick supports the Governorís consolidation proposal despite its many inconveniences. "I give the Governor credit for stepping forward on a difficult issue," he said. However, he said it is unlikely that all of the proposed consolidations could occur by July 1, 2009 (an assumption in the Governorís budget proposal), due to political and practical considerations.