Courts ask surcharge to patch budget

THURSDAY, FEB. 11, 2010

Guilty would pay $25 if lawmakers pass bill

BOISE – Idaho’s court system has a plan to cope with steep budget cuts and still keep courthouse doors open: Anyone found guilty of a crime or infraction would pay a $25 emergency surcharge for the next three years.

“We can’t delay criminal cases,” the state courts administrative director, Patti Tobias, told lawmakers on Wednesday. “Justice is our core mission, and justice can’t wait.”

Legislation to impose the emergency surcharge is scheduled for introduction today in the House Judiciary Committee. That committee’s chairman, Rep. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, said he likes the idea.

If approved, the surcharge would apply to offenses committed on or after April 15.

Tobias said Idaho’s court system already has undergone deep budget cuts, forcing a hiring freeze that has prevented the filling of any position for the past 15 months. All services have been affected, from court-ordered drug testing to computer replacements to the start-up of three “much-needed” DUI and drug courts. Now the hiring freeze is being extended to judges, she said, and at least one judicial vacancy looms.

“Today we have come with some solutions – solutions we believe are necessary for delivering justice,” Tobias told the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. The surcharge on offenders, she said, is “literally to keep the courthouse doors open to all Idahoans.”

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, vice chairwoman of the joint committee, said she thinks the measure “makes sense” because the fee is levied on people who use the court system. The surcharge would raise $5.1 million annually, but that still wouldn’t make up all the cuts, leaving courts to absorb an additional $600,000 in cutbacks.

At the same time that the courts are facing budget cuts – the governor’s proposed budget for courts next year calls for a 7 percent cut in state funding, which would drop courts below their funding levels from two years ago – caseloads have been growing. Complex civil cases filed rose 27 percent in Kootenai County from 2007 to 2009, 41 percent in Ada County and 43 percent in Canyon County.

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