Vermont Bar Journal
Winter 2008 - #8.
Judicial Funding in Times of Budget Crisis
The Vermont Bar Journal #176, Volume 34, No. 4 WINTER 2008
Judicial Funding in Times of Budget Crisisby Justice John DooleyI am sure that members of the bar, and the public interested in the functioning of the Vermont courts, were surprised to see press reports of a budget cutting scenario under which half the state courts (family and district) in the state would be permanently closed, and, in addition, all the courts would be closed for twelve days during the rest of the year and all judicial employees furloughed. How can it be that the courts could be dismantled, with no action from the legislature, as a result of relatively short-term revenue shortfalls of 8 percent? Was this an intentionally dramatic threat to stave off any budget cuts?
My intent in this brief article is to give the bar and the interested reader some notion of the intricacies of the current budget process, which is hardly understandable or transparent from the brief news accounts. I do not promise that this will be easy reading (perhaps even less so than a Vermont Supreme Court opinion), but my hope is that an informed bar can influence for the better a very uncertain future for the Vermont courts. The main point of this brief article is that changes in the structure of the judiciary, of a kind and degree not seen in this state in the past, are definitely on the table as the result of the current budget difficulties, and the bar should fully understand the reasons for them and their scope and nature.
Returning to the opening paragraph, the answer to the second question posed in the opening paragraph is "No-the scenario reported was the response to the proposed rescission cut that would continue to maximize judicial services to the public within the resources available." The detail behind that answer lies in the answer to the first question, and that answer in turn requires some context. Please bear with me on this. Under Vermont law, the State Emergency Board-made up of the governor and chairs of the four major money committees in the legislature- constructs and modifies as necessary an official state revenue estimate. The legislature built the FY 2009 budget based on the January 2008 revenue estimate, but it became clear by spring that the revenue flow was eroding and the estimate was too high. In July, the official revenue estimate was reduced by about 2.1 percent, and this act triggered emergency budget reduction action by the secretary of administration and by the legislature's Joint Fiscal Committee, a committee of four House and four Senate members. By a law passed in 1995, in case of a reduction of 1 percent or more in the revenue estimate, the secretary can create a plan to reduce expenditures and present it to the Joint Fiscal Committee, which has the final decision unless it fails to act. In that event, the secretary's plan is implemented. The secretary prepared a plan in July, and after negotiation the Joint Fiscal Committee approved it; this rescission caused the judiciary to...