M. Scott Carter reports on politics, legislation and other issues from the State Capitol.
Oklahoma’s judicial system is among those facing budget a budget cut this year, raising questions about whether it would be able to collect as much in court fines and fees that help fund other state agencies.
In February, Gov. Mary Fallin called on lawmakers to cut the budgets of most state agencies, including the judiciary, by 6.25 percent. Fallin’s budget would have cut funding to the Supreme Court by $455,694, to the Court of Criminal Appeals by $226,887 and to the district courts by $3,474,769.
However, since Fallin’s budget was released, state officials announced the budget gap has doubled the original projections, to $611.3 million, and bigger spending cuts are expected.
Preston Doerflinger, Fallin’s Secretary of Finance, said the cuts are necessary because tax revenue, primarily from the oil and gas industry, is down.
“It’s a difficult time,” Doerflinger said. “The courts are facing the same tight budget as the rest of state government.”
For members of the judiciary, the cuts come at the same time state courts are being asked to collect an increasing number of fines and fees – not only for the judicial system but for dozens of executive branch agencies. Advocates for criminal offenders say those fines and fees have become a burden on offenders and their families.
According to a 2014 reported issued by the Oklahoma Supreme Court, the judicial system has collected more than $1.19 billion in fines and fees since 2007. Of that figure $414,739,859 was earmarked for executive branch agencies.
Some lawmakers worry that another decrease in funding for the judiciary would cause an increase in fines and fees.
“What we’ve done is forced the judiciary to fund themselves and forced the judiciary to fund a lot of executive branch functions, also,” said state Rep. Emily Virgin, D-Norman.
Virgin, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, said collecting fines and fees are costing the courts, she said.
“They (the courts) aren’t being reimbursed for the cost to collect,” she said. “They’re just told to collect this money and send it over to us.”
One court official said he was concerned that collections by the court could drop and wouldn’t meet the certification requirements set by the legislature.
“At that point, in order to operate the court system, there would have to be some additional appropriations or some give and take in the process,” said Douglass Combs, vice chief justice of the Oklahoma Supreme Court.
House Budget Chairman state Rep. Earl Sears, R-Bartlesville, said he understood the court’s concern but added that all of state government was facing a difficult budget year.
“With the budget situation that we are facing, the 6.25 percent budget cut is a real possibility,” Sears said. “And in some cases it could possibly even be more.”
However, Sears said he would oppose an increase in fines and fees to offset the budget cuts.
“That would not be my intent,” he said. “I believe we need to get out of the business of raising fees to collect additional monies. In reality, should we give them more money? Yes. But in the environment we’re in, we can’t.”