LITTLE ROCK — Chief Justice Jim Hannah said Tuesday he plans to ask the Legislature to use money from the state's $72 million surplus to keep about 125 court assistants across the state on the job through the end of the fiscal year.
LITTLE ROCK — Chief Justice Jim Hannah said Tuesday he plans to ask the Legislature to use money from the state’s $72 million surplus to keep about 125 court assistants across the state on the job through the end of the fiscal year.
During budget hearings at the Capitol, Hannah informed lawmakers of his plan to request supplemental funds in the Legislature’s fiscal session that convenes Feb. 13, but he did not say how much money he would seek.
He told reporters later that he did not know exactly how much would be needed, but that state finance officials have estimated it would take about $350,000 to keep the Administration of Justice Fund, which pays the court assistants, solvent for the remainder of the fiscal year that ends June 30.
The budget panel did not take action on the judicial fund but did endorse a request to use $250,000 from the state surplus to pay for regional economic development partnership grants over Gov. Mike Beebe’s objections. For the past week, the committee has been reviewing state agency budgets in advance of the fiscal session.
The panel reviewed the Administration of Justice Fund budget because a shortfall in funds collected through court costs brought judicial officials to the brink of furloughing court employees in recent months. Last week, Beebe released $50,000 from his emergency fund to keep paying the trial court assistants through the end of February.
The governor also released $40,000 in November and December. J.D. Gingrich, director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, told the budget committee Tuesday that much of drop in revenue is probably due to the economy. He said many people are not paying their fines and court costs, and said he has anecdotal evidence that “judges are now willing, because of the economy, to allow people to work off their fees instead of having to pay.” Other judges, he added, are requiring people to serve time if they can’t pay their fine.
Hannah told the committee that an audit of the fund is being conducted by the Bureau of Legislative Audit and those findings are expected within two weeks. The chief justice said he and other state judges have been meeting with lawmakers to try and find ways to address the problem.
The working group’s recommendations, along with the audit findings, will be presented to legislators, he said.
“That should be done, we hope, in a couple of weeks,” Hannah said, adding that “the big fix” would be presented to the Legislature in 2013. “The charge we have … is not a Band-Aid approach,” he said. “We do not want this to happen again. I don’t think you want it to happen, we certainly don’t, and (the court assistants) didn’t cause this problem. They are very important.”
The budget panel endorsed a proposal by proposal by Rep. Tracy Pennartz, D-Fort Smith, to use surplus funds to assist regional economic development partnerships. Pennartz asked the committee to include the $250,000 in the Arkansas Economic Development Commission’s budget.
“This $250,000 would be used to fund certified regional economic development partnerships that request a grant,” she said.
Pennartz said the partnerships, authorized by Act 895 of 2011, would have to include development groups in at least two counties, and they would have to match the grant funds 2 to 1.
“It is primarily to be used to promote the regional assets of the entity,” she said, adding the grant money can only be used to promote programs designed to create jobs.
Sen. Johnny Key, R-Mountain Home, asked if the grant program would be separate from others funded by AEDC. Pennartz said the money would be available to private regional groups, not individual cities or counties.
“This is an opportunity for us to say from a public policy standpoint that we do indeed support their economic development efforts, that we are for jobs creation,” she said. State finance director Richard Weiss told the committee that the governor opposed the proposal because it would take money from about $72 million in surplus funds left over at the end of the last fiscal year.
Surplus funds normally are used for construction projects or supplement funding during a fiscal year when an agency has a problem. Weiss acknowledged that the Legislature has final say on where the surplus money is spent. Beebe said later he was open to discussing the idea.
“It’s something we’ll continue to visit with (Pennartz) about,” he said. “I always talk to legislators.”