By Phillip Rawls
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama's new chief justice, Roy Moore, said the state judicial system is in danger and conditions will worsen if the Legislature approves a budget recommended by the governor.
Moore said the system already is understaffed because of long-standing budget problems, and the governor's plan could mean more layoffs.
"We are basically being cut out of existence," Moore said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Gov. Robert Bentley has proposed a state General Fund budget that would give the court system $100.3 million for the new fiscal year starting Oct. 1. That's down from $102.8 million this fiscal year.
The current budget is nearly a $23 million cut from the prior year's plan. To make up for the cut, the Legislature voted last year to raise the fees on all types of court cases ranging from traffic tickets to felonies. That was supposed to generate $25 million for the state's trial and appellate courts and $5 million for county circuit clerk's offices.
But Moore, who took office in January, said the fees are coming in at slightly less than half of what officials predicted last year, and the courts will end the year $13 million short of what they expected.
In addition, the governor's proposed budget doesn't account for a $6 million increase in mandated costs, primarily rising health insurance premiums for employees, he said.
Moore figures he would go into the new budget year behind by $19 million. "That could result in losing 25 percent of the people we have left," he said.
Moore wrote the governor Feb. 8 about his concerns. The governor's spokesman, Jeremy King, said Friday that they are not commenting.
The Alabama Constitution says the judicial system shall receive "adequate and reasonable funding." Moore faced budget problems when he began his first term as chief justice in January 2001. The General Fund appropriation back then was $120.1 million, which was more than the courts are getting 12 years later.
On the other hand, the Legislature has raised court fees and created other revenue-raising measures during that time to try to increase the court system's money from outside the General Fund.
Moore's first term as chief justice ended in 2003, when a state judicial court removed him from office for not following a federal court order to remove his Ten Commandments monument from the lobby of the state judicial building. He ran again for chief justice last year and defeated Bentley's former chief of staff, Chuck Malone, in the Republican primary.
Moore said court system employees haven't had a cost-of-living raise since 2008, and the court system has cut 261 positions, mostly court clerks and juvenile probation officers. That leaves 1,818 employees, he said.
"Our judges and judicial employees continue to make herculean efforts to maintain the justice system with every decreasing funds and staff," he said.
In Moore's view, Bentley created a morale problem for those employees Feb. 5 when he proposed a 2.5 percent cost-of-living raise for education employees who are paid from the state education budget, but no increase for employees of state government programs, including the courts, who are paid from the General Fund.
"It is very difficult to explain to the many hardworking and dedicated court employees and officials of this State why your budget proposes more money for new programs and certain employee salary raises, while court employees have not received salary increase since 2008 and may well be faced with losing their jobs," Moore said in his letter to the governor.
When Bentley unveiled his budget proposals Feb. 6, his state finance director, Marquita Davis, said he was able to propose a raise for educators because the income and sales taxes that flow into the education budget have started recovering from the recession. But she said he could not propose one for employees of state agencies and departments because the taxes that flow in the General Fund remain flat.
The Legislature has not yet acted on Bentley's budget proposal or pay raise recommendation. Lawmakers have until mid-May to do that.