LITTLE ROCK — A potential fix to a chronic shortfall in the fund that pays for a number of state judicial programs along with the salaries of 125 administrative court assistants, has been cobbled together by a panel of judges and could get final approval this week by the Legislature.
But while many see Senate Bill 307 as the long-term solution to an $87,000 a month shortfall in the Administration of Justice Fund, some lawmakers aren’t so sure.
In fact, lawmakers are expected to be asked soon to provide an additional cash infusion — as much as $350,000 — to the fund to help pay the salaries of the administrative court assistants through the end of the current fiscal year.
SB 307 has passed the Senate, was endorsed by the House Judiciary Committee last week and is expected to be on Monday’s House agenda.
"We hope this is a long term fix," said Pulaski County Circuit Judge Vann Smith, president of the Arkansas Judicial Council.
Administrative court assistants, or clerks, are responsible for managing the disposition of cases filed. They also maintain the court’s calender, set dates for trial of cases and hearing of motions.
SB 307 is expected to generate about $7 million annually, with the bulk of the new money coming from a new $50 fee for having misdemeanor charges expunged and a doubling to $10 of the monthly fee for the privilege of paying off fines by installment in district court, the same fee that is currently charged in circuit court.
"About 90 percent of it is attempting to get at specific … inconsistencies in the current law making sure that all things are handled the same way" in district and circuit courts across the state, said J.D. Gingrich, director of the Administrative Office of the Court.
"For example, there is a reopening fee in the law that allows you to reopen an old case, as opposed to opening a new case, but there is not anything in the law that tells the clerk when is it legitimately a reopening and when should you file a new lawsuit," Gingrich said.
"Apparently in some areas of the state that has been used by some folks, in effect, to pay a lower reopening fee, even though it may have been an unrelated case from 10 years ago," he said.
The bill also sets priority spending when money is collected.
"There are things like that that aren’t new fees, but they will produce new revenue," Gingrich said.
In late 2011, lawmakers learned that the AOJ fund had been losing money for years because of a drop in fee and fine collections.
Along with paying the salaries of the administrative court assistants, money from the fund also goes to 21 other programs, including the building fund for the state’s two law schools, the attorney general’s crime victims reparation program, the judicial retirement system and public defenders.
In February 2011, Gov. Mike Beebe infused $130,000 into the fund to avoid furloughs and layoffs of the 125 court assistants. During the 2012 fiscal session, lawmakers discussed possible ways to address the shortfall but could not agree on a funding method.
Attorney General Dustin McDaniel in February 2012 donated $450,000 from legal settlements, and the Administrative Office of the Courts was able to move about $150,000 from the agency’s automation project to the fund to keep the court assistants on the job through the end of the current fiscal year.
A state audit of the AOJ fund last year found several factors contributed to declining court revenues, including a slower rate of tickets being issued, cases filed and warrants served, in addition to the economic downturn.
Data from eight district courts showed the number of tickets issued from 2010 to 2011 fell by an average of 10 percent. The number of warrants issued and-or served by those courts were an average of 6 percent lower in 2011 than in 2010.
The audit also found that people were assessed smaller installment payments, and if they were unable to pay the judge allowed them work community service or serve jail time.
A number of one-time allocations from the fund approved by the Legislature also contributed to the declining amount, according to the audit.
The fund, however, has continued to lose money and earlier this year the Legislature approved SB 82 by Sen. Bruce Maloch, D-Magnolia, as a temporary fix. The bill took $100,000 in unobligated funds from the County Juror Reimbursement Fund and $50,000 in unobligated funds from the Municipal Court Judge and Municipal Court Education Fund to pay the court assistants.
Maloch said the Legislature will have to find some additional funding in the next few weeks for the AOJ fund or it could run out of money to pay the assistants.
Vines said SB 307 isn’t perfect.
"We still have concerns about why the collections dropped off the face of the earth," he said. "This isn’t going to fix that issue and I want to make sure people understand we’ve still got issues there."
"It’s not that judge’s aren’t assessing costs and fees, they’re still making the same number of assessments," said Stephanie Harris, spokeswoman for the state Supreme Court
The recession made it more difficult for people to repay their fines and other costs, she said. Many judges began allowing people to work off their funds on weekends, or allowed more people to pay off their fines over a number of months.
Maloch said he is currently trying to find funding to keep the AOJ fund solvent through the end of the current fiscal year. He said it is expected to run out of money to pay the administrative assistants in the next few weeks.
As for SB 307, Maloch said there are still a number of questions about the bill, including how much it will generate.
"I don’t think (Bureau of Legislative Research staff really has a good idea of how much it will raise," he said, adding that legislative leaders working on the AOJ fund shortfall might just let SB 307 takes its course, if it is approved this week, and see what happens.
"Wait and see what it generates and then by the time we come in for the fiscal session (next year) see if we have to find some more money or not," he said. "That’s about the only thing we can do with 307."
Gingrich said the Arkansas Judicial Council continues to review the issue and the possibility of prioritizing the spending of the AOJ fund to make sure the administrative court assistants are paid first has been discussed.
Rep. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, has filed House Bill 1366, which would do just that. That measure has yet to be considered.