Texas judiciary faces massive budget cuts; layoffs possible for Ninth Court of Appeals


In a move to cut $1.2 billion from the 2010-2011 biennial budget, Texas leaders on May 18 directed the Legislative Budget Board to notify state agencies that budget savings proposals requested by leadership earlier this year should be implemented.

Most state agencies will feel the pinch from lost funding and the Texas judiciary is no exception, as the state's court system faces a 5 percent budget cut across the board – a major drop in funding that will lead to layoffs, one appellate chief justice believes.

"We don't know the answer on how exactly this will affect us just yet," said Steve McKeithen, chief justice of the Ninth District Court of Appeals of Texas. "If the 5 percent cut is put into effect, it could be serious. We may not be able to keep all of our staff."

According to the Legislative Budget Board, the Ninth Court submitted a budget $158,718. The board suggested a cut of $94,939 – a staggering 60 percent cut – leaving the new target budget at only $63,292.

Nearly all Texas higher courts are confronted with same funding issue, even the state's highest court. The Supreme Court of Texas submitted a $1,775,979 budget, and the amount was cut by more than $525,000 to $1,250,000.

Justice McKeithen says 96 percent of his court's budget consists of salaries – and the Ninth Court's efficiency would be slowed if layoffs ensue. However, he holds out hope that scenario will not come to pass.

"There is a possibility that once we are in front of the legislature next year a portion of our funding could be put back in our budget," Justice McKeithen said. "The legislature has always gone out of its way to help the judiciary be funded so we don't lose employees."

In January, Governor Rick Perry, Lt. Governor David Dewhurst and Texas House of Representatives Speaker Joe Straus asked each state agency to submit a plan identifying savings in priority increments totaling 5 percent of general revenue.

"Every penny we save now in the 2010-11 biennium is one penny closer to balancing the budget in the next legislative session," Gov. Perry said in a statement posted on the governor's website.

"These reductions reflect our state's ongoing commitment to keeping taxes low by limiting government spending, a key aspect of the continued strength of our state's economy."

Fiscal Year 2010 funds saved through budget reductions will be placed in savings accounts set up by the Texas Comptroller's Office and allowed to lapse, leaving those funds available in the next budget cycle, according to the website.

Each agency's savings plan will be further reviewed through the budget process during the 82nd Legislature, and each may be directed to achieve additional savings or granted additional exemptions.

"By tightening our belt just like millions of families and Texas businesses are doing every day across the state, we will help ensure Texas' economy remains the strongest in the nation, while protecting the most vulnerable Texans, promoting job growth and job creation, and keeping all Texans safe," Lt. Gov. Dewhurst said.

"These savings will protect taxpayers' hard-earned money while maintaining essential services vital to the people of Texas."

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