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Court budget means 'service reduction'

Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen of Alexandria examines the state courts budget Thursday, before a Senate committee approved cutting judiciary spending 7 percent. Photo by Don Davis

ST. PAUL - Minnesota senators are considering increasing court fees nearly $36 million to prevent deep budget cuts for the courts system, but a leading judge and the senator in charge of judicial spending say the budget still would be too small.

"They are moving in the right direction," Hennepin County District Judge Charles Porter said. "Obviously, any cut we have to take will result in a reduction of services to the public and we don't want to do that."

Once the proposed new fees are figured in, the Senate courts funding bill suggests a budget cut for the two-year budget that begins July 1 of about 1.5 percent, much like a House bill also making its way through the process. Before the new fees were proposed, the Senate planned a 7 percent cut.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty's budget proposal originally called for a 10 percent cut.

Democratic Sen. Leo Foley of Coon Rapids, the judiciary finance chairman, said the proposed $740 million courts budget still is so small that Minnesotans might be endangered.

Porter, president of the Minnesota District Judges Association, agreed that is possible. With the cut, judges will be forced to not handle some relatively minor cases, he said.

"In any circumstance of any interaction between citizens, there always is a chance that it will escalate," Porter said, adding that failure to enforce minor laws likely will lead to more serious crimes.

Foley said that Senate budget writers are not giving him enough money for the courts. Education and health care appear to be getting a better deal, he said, "but I don't think their need is any greater than mine."

With the higher fees tucked into his courts funding measure, Foley's bill actually presents a smaller cut than the one Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, had to offer public education. That 2.2 percent reduction began as a 7 percent cut, but federal economic stimulus money was used to soften the blow.

A health and human services bill, which also uses some federal money, still is in the works.

Foley's bill, which passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday and is headed for a full Senate vote next week, includes $5.6 million in federal funds to ease what otherwise would have been a bigger cut.

Most areas of the state budget face cuts as lawmakers try to plug a $6.4 billion deficit, a hole that was reduced to $4.6 billion with federal economic stimulus money.

Porter said the courts budget already stands at "91 percent of our needs" and any cut will be felt.

"We are going to cut significant services, and things that people rely on," Porter said.

Chief Justice Eric Magnuson waged a statewide campaign to tell Minnesotans that their lives would be affected if lawmakers and Pawlenty cut court budgets.

Court officials have not said exactly what would have to be cut under the House and Senate proposals.

Fee increases in the Senate bill include:

  • Parking ticket surcharges would rise from $4 to $12.
  • Civil court filing fees would go up from $240 to $265.
  • Documents filed in court would be assessed $1 per page.
  • Lawyer licenses would go up $50.
Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.