by Max Brantley
Rep. Steve Harrelson's Under the Dome blog has been a treasure trove of legislative information and reporting, sometimes almost instantaneous reporting. A couple of things to recommend there today:
1) His bests and worsts of the session. "Most clever appropriation," for example, is the device the legislature has invented to avoid unconstitutional local legislation while still directing pork payments to favored local beneficiaries. (And there were still individual special pork appropriations, weren't there Rep. Harrelson, like that rail project? Republicans put up a little fuss about this after being told no such would be allowed. They were ignored.)
2) Then there's his report on another of his bills, the giant salary bill for district courts (municipal, county, etc.) This is one of the legislature's sacred cows. Powerful judges and powerful legislators (often lawyers) have long seen this bill as their playpen. The courts produce a lot of revenue for local government, so keeping judges happy is a high priority for local officials. The subject once became hotly controversialwhen a judge lobbyist tried to slip cash tip to a legislator who had worked on the bill. (A reader notes that while the district courts collect a lot of money -- $112 million in this 2007 state summary -- they leave a lot of fines on the table from non-collection.)
Harrelson provides the link to the statewide numbers. Read this thing and tell me that district courts shouldn't be folded into a state system with a uniform pay system. Pay varies widely -- both as to judges and staff -- and you can't tell me it's all explained by legitimte circumstances. Elwood, who called this post to my attention, notes the bill includes a new maximum pay, presumably subject to local approval., for the district court judge in Springdale of $165,000. That's about $8,000 more than the salary of the chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court. How's that?
UPDATE: Conway Mayor Tab Townsell responded to this item with a letter about other difficulties in the district court system.
As far as your thought that District Courts should be taken into a state system (or incorporated into the state system) let me point you to “Section 7. District Courts” of the Amendment 80 which states “(A) District Courts are established . . .” To me this means they are not creatures of local jurisdictions anymore as they once were when known as Municipal Courts. They are already creatures of the state. Local salary setting is just a part of a local financing system for these District Courts that probably leads to other greater disparities. Rather than take them in and create political trauma in many quarters, the state has for the most part tried not to disturb the sleeping local court system.
As far as the pay differentials, they can be somewhat justified by the case load differences across jurisdictions. A District Court in Little Rock is a full time job whereas in a small town in a small county it probably is not.
Still there are facets of the system that make no sense and are simply passed down from a murky past Amendment 80 notwithstanding. For example, in Faulkner County there is one District Court and it is in Conway. By law (16-17-115), Faulkner County must for half of the District Judge’s salary and half of the Chief District Court Clerk’s salary. For the record, despite chronic money problems, Faulkner County pays a small portion above that which we appreciate. All remaining costs must be born by the city. The salaries and benefits of the deputy clerks, the lights and HVAC, the computers and software, the physical building itself and its insurance – literally everything else. The 2008 Faulkner County District Court budget was $876,000. The county kicked in only $113,000 which was more than legally required. That doesn’t count the ten year old, million dollar building the court occupies paid for by the city. Yet, when you look at the proceeds that the court delivered to the county general fund and the city general fund from the fine and fee collections, it is almost equal. The District Court is a cash cow for the county and, well, not so much for the city. City taxpayers unfairly carry most of the court burden for the non-city taxpayers in the county. And this pattern is repeated around Arkansas in various cities and counties. To make matters worse, the state applied fees - “court costs” – represent almost half the cost of a traffic ticket and they can not be waived. A judge wishing to show a little mercy can only waive the local fine. This ends up costing cities and counties money but not the state.
I say this not to pick on counties whose political structures and revenue streams are archaic – particularly not Faulkner County with whom we work well. I just wish to point out that it is an even more strange court arrangement when you dig deeper. I for one would entertain the state taking over and funding the system themselves. Cities would get back their fine monies minus its pro-rata share of the cost of the court. Any waiving of fees and fines would be shared pro rata as well between the local fine and the various assessed state fees. That and a pay system that isn’t manipulated biannually by each court’s local legislators would be the beginnings of a good system.
But even some cities would not buy into it and probably fewer counties if any. Their objection would not be based on fairness but on the loss of revenue to their jurisdictions. And you couldn’t blame them. Organically grown government is strange and, frankly, without rhyme or reason in many manifestations. However, it is what it is.
I am not expecting change soon!