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John Celock
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Kansas Courts To Close 5 Days In Budget Impasse

Posted: 04/ 4/2012 6:17 pm Updated: 04/ 4/2012 6:27 pm

Kansas Courts Shutdown
Kansas Gov. San Brownback

Kansas state courts will shut down for five Fridays this spring to save money in a state budget crisis that includes a $1.4 million hole in the court budget.

Kansas Chief Justice Lawton Nuss said Wednesday that the Legislature's failure to pass additional revenue for the current budget and address the next budget leads to the drastic step of shutting the entire court system on five Fridays in April, May and June. Judges will remain on duty during the shutdown days, but 1,500 staffers will vanish.

"This impasse creates an operational dilemma for the state court system because without the supplemental appropriation, we do not have enough money to make our payroll through the end of the fiscal year," Nuss said in a statement. "And as of today, we have no assurance we will have that appropriation to operate through the end of this fiscal year."

The $1.4 million budget gap for the courts came as court filings and resulting fees declined over the past year. State Sen. Laura Kelly (D-Topeka), the ranking minority member of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, told HuffPost that lawmakers last year told court officials to raise filing fees to fund the budget.

Kansas lawmakers adopt three budgets in the first few months of the year. The first, called the supplemental budget, fills holes in the current fiscal year's spending plan or makes additional cuts. The second, called the mega-budget, is the spending plan for the next fiscal year. The third budget, the omnibus budget, covers any additional spending. The $1.4 million for the judiciary is caught in the supplemental budget, along with $29 million to cover for state aid to public schools.

Kelly said Senate and House budget leaders agreed to fund education and judicial spending with funds from excess revenue, but came to an impasse over how to fund the education aid. Kelly said Senate leaders, including her and moderate Republicans, focused on using unspent money from the state general fund. Conservative House Republicans wanted to use money from the state's highway fund.

Failure to agree how to fund the schools and a decision not to use the omnibus budget to take the money out of the general fund instead of the highway fund led to the current impasse.

"We have plenty of money in the general fund," Kelly said.

Kelly said House Republicans did not say why they wanted the money to come out of the highway fund instead of the general fund. She said she believes that House members want to use the money to fund tax cuts proposed by Gov. Sam Brownback (R). Rep. Marc Rhodes (R-Newton), the House Appropriations Committee chairman, could not be reached for comment.

"I don't think that anyone in the House, as conservative as they are, wants to raid the highway funds for fun," Kelly said.

Brownback's spokeswoman, Sherriene Jones-Sontag, told HuffPost that the governor believes the impasse will be solved when the Legislature returns from break later this month. She noted that no executive branch services are affected.

The budget impasse makes Kansas one of 23 states that have had to reduce hours or days the courts are in session, according to a study by the National Center for State Courts.

Under Nuss' plan, emergencies will continue to be handled by on-duty judges, including arrest warrants and search warrants, orders of protection and arraignments. Nuss' spokesman, Ron Keefover, said there will be no trials, court filings, searches of court records and marriage licenses on days when courts are closed. He said the shutdown may affect civil trials if the day off delay makes judges or lawyers unavailable later. He said this could force those cases to be rescheduled for trial in the fall.

"They can go down and grab the mail, that's about it," Keefover said of what judges can due on furlough days.

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