Staff Editorial

Judicial cuts reflect Legislature's failure to think ahead

One of the windows at the Clerk of Courts office is closed at the Linn County Courthouse on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2009, in Cedar Rapids. The office closed early on Tuesdays and Thursdays because of employee furloughs. The Iowa Judicial Branch is warning that additional budget cuts this year could result in more closures and less access to the court system by Iowans. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
One of the windows at the Clerk of Courts office is closed at the Linn County Courthouse on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2009, in Cedar Rapids. The office closed early on Tuesdays and Thursdays because of employee furloughs. The Iowa Judicial Branch is warning that additional budget cuts this year could result in more closures and less access to the court system by Iowans. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Note: The original version of this editorial misattributed the source of proposed midyear cuts. They were proposed by Iowa Senate Republicans.

Republicans who control the Iowa Senate have proposed a $52 million package of midyear cuts to the current fiscal 2018 budget. That’s considerably more than the roughly $34 million in cuts proposed by Gov. Kim Reynolds to cover a gap spawned by sluggish tax revenues.

There’s plenty of bad news to go around, for community colleges, universities and other state functions. But the package is particularly bad for the state’s already cash-strapped judicial system.

Reynolds proposed a $1.6 million cut in the judicial branch’s $175 million annual budget. The branch’s budget was sliced by $3 million roughly a year ago. And that came after two fiscal years of status quo funding that already fell short of what Iowa’s courts needed to deliver justice to Iowans.

The Senate GOP plan would triple Reynolds’ planned cut, slicing $4.8 million from the judicial branch budget. Although the courts make up just less than 2.5 percent of the $7.2 billion general fund budget, they’ll absorb 9 percent of these midyear cuts.

Last month, Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady told lawmakers about the effects of past cuts, resulting in dozens of unfilled essential positions, a lack of funds for much-needed drug courts and other programs. Pile on the proposed Senate GOP cuts, and court officials warn that clerk of court operations in 30 Iowa counties could be closed indefinitely, with caseloads shifted to other offices. Iowans’ access to the court system will be significantly curtailed.

We understand the need to make cuts in the face of inadequate revenue. It’s a tough call. But it’s the Legislature’s unwillingness to make even tougher calls that brought us here.

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As we’ve argued repeatedly, the state’s revenue woes are a direct result of tax breaks, credits, cuts and exemptions handed out by lawmakers of both parties over the past two decades. Beyond talk of analyzing those tax expenditures, there’s been no real action to roll back those giveaways.

And it’s been more than 16 years since the judicial branch proposed a restructuring effort that would have consolidated clerk of court operations to save resources. Lawmakers, especially from rural areas, balked at the plan and opted instead for a study that went nowhere.

So thanks to a Legislature unwilling to say no to interests seeking tax gifts and unwilling to weather criticism for making needed changes to an outdated and costly system, here we are. Instead of long-term thinking, we get political expediency and patchwork budgeting.

Iowans seeking justice can expect a good long wait, both for a court date and real legislative leadership.

• Comments: (319) 398-8262; editorial@thegazette.com

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