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Lawmakers, governor at odds over courts’ budget

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Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – The Legislature and Gov. Susana Martinez are at odds over whether the state courts should get a 4.5 percent budget increase that would include a raise for judges who rank among the lowest paid in the nation.

The bipartisan Legislative Finance Committee says the proposed $6.7 million increase is needed to support a state court system faced with growing case loads.

In addition to a 5 percent pay raise for judges that would cost about $1.2 million, the legislative proposal would fund five new judgeships around the state and provide nearly $1.9 million to offset mandatory increased employer contributions toward employee pension and insurance programs. It would also rebuild the state’s drug court programs, which provide intensive supervision to nonviolent criminal offenders with underlying drug problems, with $650,000 cut during the recession.

Arthur Pepin, director of the state Administrative Office of the Courts, said judges would also receive an additional 3 percent under a LFC salary increase proposal governing all state employees.

“This is one of the few branches of government that stepped to the plate and said we’ll find ways to try and make this system work during the most difficult times (of the recession). And we have some catching up to do,” said Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

“I like to think that the Legislature is trying to get along with the equal branches,” he said. “That’s what we’re attempting to do.”

But the Governor’s Office says the judiciary should take a back seat to other agencies, including public education and public health, whose budgets in recent years received smaller increases than the courts did.

“Over the past few years, when looking at the primary sectors of state government, there’s no sector that has had its budget raised more generously than the courts,” said Martinez spokesman Enrique Knell.

The current-year budget, for example, increased judiciary spending by 5.1 percent compared with a 4 percent hike for public schools, a 3.2 percent rise for public safety and a 3.5 percent increase for health and human services, Knell said.

In response, Martinez has recommended the courts next year receive a budget increase of about 0.9 percent, or $1.3 million. That proposal does not include any money for judges’ pay raises, new judgeships or additional funds for drug courts.

Pay for New Mexico’s 90 district judges is about $112,700 annually – compared with nearly $129,000 in No. 34 ranked Colorado and $145,000 paid in No. 14 ranked Arizona. Judges in New Mexico, like all state employees, received a 1 percent pay raise earlier this year.

New Mexico’s 66 magistrate court judges are paid about $80,300 per year.

The spread between the governor’s proposal and the legislative recommendation amounts to a $5.4 million difference in a judiciary budget that totals $148.7 million this year.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Petra Jimenez Maes countered the Governor’s Office criticism of the judiciary budget, saying that courts’ share of the overall state budget has decreased. The courts spending represents 2.55 percent of the total state budget recommended by the Legislature. In 2009, courts received 2.57 percent of state spending.

“We’re not increasing at the level that the state budgets have been increasing, so I respectfully disagree,” Maes said.

The chief justice said the courts continue to operate under a “skeleton budget” and new resources are needed to ensure court services are available within a reasonable time frame.

“There isn’t any padding there. We always run a pretty lean budget, and we’re looking at what we need. That’s what we’re coming in and asking for,” Maes said. “… We need to put some muscle back on that skeleton because it’s impacting our ability to provide services to the citizens of New Mexico. We need to get their cases resolved timely in court.”

The governor’s proposal also recommends that the state’s three largest judicial districts – based in Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Sandoval County – receive no operating budget increase.

Albuquerque’s 2nd Judicial District Chief Judge Ted Baca said when mandatory increases in employer contributions are taken into account, the governor’s budget recommendation for the state’s largest district court amounts to a budget cut.

“By the governor keeping us in the flat budget … there are no funds provided even to pay the mandatory expenses,” Baca said.

That proposal “actually would have us starting off approximately $400,000 in the red,” Baca said. “Not only does it limit growth, but it sends it backwards.”

Pepin said the courts are making an increase in judges pay a priority this year after an annual survey by the National Center for State Courts in 2013 ranked New Mexico the lowest paying jurisdiction for trial court judges in the country.

Pay for New Mexico’s Supreme Court justices in 2013 ranked 46th; appellate court judge pay ranked No. 38.

The LFC proposal would effectively give judges an 8 percent raise next year, thanks to a 3 percent raise available to all state employees in addition to a separate 5 percent raise legislators requested for judges in their recommended courts budget.

However, judges are requesting 3 percent of that raise go toward their pension fund in an effort to make the judicial pension fund solvent, Pepin said. Proposed legislation to balance the judicial pension fund being considered this session calls for judges and the state to each increase contributions to the fund by 3 percent.

The effort to increase judges pay comes one year after the courts used savings from vacant positions to fund raises of at least 2.5 percent for all non-judge court employees, Pepin said.

“This year, our priority is to try and do that for the judges, supported by the fact that they’re the lowest paid in the whole country,” he said.

Knell, the governor’s spokesman, said there are other state employees in line for raises first.

“The governor feels that it’s critical that we target compensation increases toward starting teachers, highly effective teachers, and positions that are incredibly difficult to recruit and retain (such as police officers, protective services workers and correctional officers),” Knell said in an emailed statement.

“Additional compensation for other employees, including for district judges and Supreme Court justices making $112,746 and $125,407 respectively per year, will have to be discussed as part of the ongoing budget negotiations with the Legislature.”

However, at least one top Republican lawmaker said the judiciary’s budget request, including raises for judges, is reasonable.

“In my view, it’s very needed,” Rep. Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, the House minority whip, said of the judiciary budget increase.

“In looking at a comparison of what our judges are paid compared to other judges in the nation, our judges are paid far less. Are they due for a pay raise? Absolutely,” said Gentry, who works as a lawyer.

The House Appropriations and Finance Committee, the first step in the drafting of the state budget, approved the higher judiciary spending recommendation last week with an additional $86,000 attached to fund programs in the district court divisions based in Santa Fe and Las Vegas.

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