Editor’s note: This story was updated at 11:30 to make minor corrections to the figures, add an update on the supplemental budget request and add a comment from Rep. Andy Josephson.
Halfway through the financial year, the Alaska Court System is searching for ways to make its budget stretch for the remainder of the year.
That’s because in addition to the $334,700 Gov. Mike Dunleavy vetoed from the court’s budget over an abortion ruling, the court system this week confirmed that it’s being charged additional fees by the executive branch—totaling nearly $85,000—that weren’t discussed at budget time.
“This is new and unexpected. They have begun charging us fees for an OMB analyst that covers the court,” said Doug Wooliver, the deputy administrative director for the Alaska Court System, in an interview Monday, later adding that insurance costs passed down the state also rose, “The insurance increase was not expected, but the state’s expected costs for general liability claims rose significantly, and because the Division of Risk Management acts like a risk pool, the cost increase is spread proportionately across state entities, including the judiciary. The $75,800 is our share.”
The Alaska Court System’s total budget for the fiscal year is $112 million after the $334,700 veto. The total unexpected costs add up to $84,900. While it’s less than 1 percent of the system’s overall budget, Wooliver said it’ll require the court system to prioritize funding for the year.
“We’re taking a variety of steps to make sure we stay within our budget,” he said. “When we do have vacancies, we’ll keep them open for longer. … We already have limited a lot of our travel but will further restrict travel.”
He added that the budget issue isn’t helped by the fact that turnover in the court system is extremely low compared to recent years, which has put pressure on a budget that was built on an expectation of about a 7 percent vacancy throughout the year. Jury trials are also up in the Anchorage area, which is contributing to rising expenses for the system.
The court system has been proactive about handling budget reductions, announcing in 2016 that it would be closing most courts early on Friday—which at the time amounted to a 4 percent pay reduction to court employees—and making reductions in other areas. Those cuts have meant longer lines and longer waits for some cases to get in front of judges, and Wooliver said the latest budgetary pinch will likely mean more of the same.
“Largely, the way the last several years of budget cuts show up in terms of impacting people in ways that they notice is we have a significantly smaller workforce than we used to have, so a lot of things take more time: Public records requests, distribution of documents, longer lines at the clerks counters, those types of things,” he said.
The court hasn’t requested supplemental funding from the Legislature in several years, but Wooliver said the court system has submitted a request for the supplemental budget that will be considered by legislators this session as well as request additional funding for the upcoming fiscal year’s budget. Legislators are already anticipating a hefty supplemental budget this spring, nearing as much as $200 million to cover forest fighting costs and Medicaid cuts made by Dunleavy that were not realistic.
Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, chairs the House committee on the court system. A former prosecutor, Josephson said it’s critical to properly fund the courts and said he plans to review the charging of these new fees this session.
“We can certainly look into that 10 days from now,” he said in an interview earlier this week, referring to the session that starts next week. “We’ll fund anything reasonable that they need. Barring some argument that they are inflating their demand, they will have a very sympathetic ear in me.”
In the meantime, the changes will likely be felt.
“We do always have a judge available for a criminal trial, but not everything can be a priority,” Wooliver said. “So, when criminal trials and child in need of aid proceedings all have real strict statutory and sometimes constitutional timelines, then other cases get delayed. … That’s how a lot of people will experience it.”
Though the court system has been the target of the administration, first with the veto of court funds over an abortion ruling Dunleavy (which spawned its own lawsuit and is a key element of the recall effort’s claims against the governor), the additional fees being passed down aren’t solely targeted at the court system and instead appear to be a new approach to budgeting.
Dunleavy administration did not respond to a request to comment, but Dunleavy has regularly boasted about internal reductions and increased efficiencies.
The Legislature has also been met with unexpected charges this year, but they’re several times smaller than what the court system has been hit with (and there was no veto, either).
Legislative Affairs Agency Executive Director Jessica Geary confirmed that the Legislature was billed $12,112 for the time of an Office of Management and Budget analyst.
as well as $2,250 for digital archive storage.
“Though insignificant in dollar amount, we have never been billed for these services prior to FY20,” she said via email.
The court system had initially been told by the executive branch that it would be charging an additional $29,000 for records storage in the state’s archives, but Wooliver said the court was notified this week that the plan to charge for records was actually for the upcoming budget year that starts on July 1 (The Legislature was similarly notified that the $2,250 for digital archive storage would occur in the upcoming year).
“We already have that in our budget request,” Wooliver said.