Justice officials plead to avoid cuts to budget - Albuquerque Journal

Justice officials plead to avoid cuts to budget

SANTA FE – Top New Mexico judicial branch officials urged legislators Tuesday to spare the state court system from the chopping block, saying even modest budget cuts could lead to employee furloughs, reduced court hours and pared-back drug court programs.

The state is facing a massive $589 million budget shortfall for the current and just-ended fiscal years, and spending cuts could be part of a budget-balancing fix that’s expected to be debated in a special legislative session this month.

However, judicial branch officials say that they’ve already taken steps to reduce spending – partly by reducing mileage reimbursement rates – and that any cuts over 1 percent would damage an already cash-strapped court system. They also gave lawmakers a budget request for the coming year that would increase court funding by roughly $7.7 million, or 4.8 percent, over this year’s levels.

“Right now, we’re keeping our nostrils above the surface, but you can only do that for so long,” Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Daniels told members of the interim Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee.

He also said that in light of the state’s budget situation, the judicial branch is not seeking funding for four additional judgeships around the state, even though such action was recommended by a panel of judges from around the state.

Court officials have sparred with Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration in recent years over funding and other issues, and a spokesman for the GOP governor blasted the judicial branch Tuesday for seeking more money while the state grapples with a revenue downturn.

“The judiciary’s increases in spending have far surpassed increases in most other areas of government for several years, and the very fact they’re seeking an increase of this size now … once again … shows they’re not taking our budget challenges seriously,” Martinez spokesman Michael Lonergan said.

Spending for the New Mexico court system is set at nearly $161 million for the current budget year, or about 2.6 percent of total state spending, and the judicial branch has pushed in recent years for higher salaries for judges and court clerks.

Lawmakers from both political parties expressed concern Tuesday about funding levels for the state’s court system.

“We’ve got to start thinking about the future of our justice system,” said Rep. Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque, a retired attorney. “It’s being ruptured by the lack of funding, based on what I can tell.”

Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, said it’s wrong to suggest the judiciary is “swimming in money,” adding that drug courts and other specialty courts aimed at reducing recidivism have proved to be effective tools.

Legislators also heard dire budgetary warnings Tuesday from officials with the Law Office of the Public Defender, which provides legal representation to indigent defendants in New Mexico state courts.

Ben Baur, the state’s chief public defender, said the office will have to start declining cases in certain parts of the state due to a lack of funding, despite a constitutional requirement that representation be provided to all eligible defendants.

“If you don’t fund defense, the system doesn’t work,” said Baur, who added that the public defender’s office would be seeking a 10 percent increase in funding in the coming year, which would allow it to hire 25 additional attorneys.

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