Bill would restrict governor’s ability to cut Judicial Branch budgets

A key state legislator said Thursday he has the votes to override a veto of proposed legislation that would limit the governor’s authority to cut the budget of the state’s Judicial Branch.

The measure also would restore $6.1 million in cuts that otherwise would force the closure of three courthouses and nearly a third of the state’s law libraries starting gradually April 1, and another $1.5 million for legal aid organizations that represent poor clients facing foreclosure or other civil court actions.

Rep. Michael P. Lawlor, D-East Haven, co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said keeping the Windham, Bristol and Norwalk courthouses, six law libraries and legal services operating should become law with no problem.

norwalk court

Norwalk courthouse: A reprieve? (State of Connecticut photo)

“We have way more votes than you would need to override a governor’s veto,” he said.

The bill was approved by the Judiciary Committee Wednesday and will likely get voted on by the Appropriations Committee next week.

Rep. John Geragosian, D-New Britain, says he is confident the Appropriations Committee, which he co-chairs, will vote the bill out of committee. It will then be up to Democratic leadership to decide whether to move forward for final passage.

Melissa Farley, spokesperson for the Connecticut Judicial Branch, said how fast the legislature acts will determine if any of the courts or law libraries actually close their doors.

“At this point we are still moving forward to close them. We are certainly hoping it will go into affect sooner rather than later,” she said.

With two-thirds of the current fiscal year already over, the courts and libraries are nearly out of money, Farley said.

Rell vetoed a bill approved by the General Assembly during a September special session that would have exempted the Judicial Branch from cuts to the “other expenses” line item – which is typically used to pay for service contracts and small equipment purchases.

That bill didn’t have enough votes for an override Rell’s veto, but Lawlor said support for the idea has grown this year.

In addition to restoring funding to the Judicial Branch this year, Lawlor said the bill will protect the courts long-term by creating a “hurdle” the governor’s office must jump to cut funding.

Judicial Branch agencies currently submit their budgets to the governor, and the governor decides what to include in a proposed budget to the legislature. The proposed bill would require governors to submit Judicial Branch budget requests in their entirety, with recommendations for changes.

“Why does their request need to go through the governor’s office filter?” Lawlor said.

As a separate branch of government, the Judicial Branch should not be subject to budget-cutting by the chief executive, Lawlor said. The legislature’s budget does not go through the governor’s office.

But Senate Minority Leader Pro Tem Leonard A. Fasano of North Haven says the governor’s office should have authority to review the budget, and he called the idea of cutting her out “hypocritical.”

“Why should the legislature have the authority [to review the request] and the governor doesn’t? You are arguing out of both sides of your mouth,” he said. “… If it’s a separation of power issue then you have to be consistent.”

But Judge Barbara M. Quinn, the chief court administrator, said the governor is not treating the Judicial Branch fairly with budget considerations.

“We are sometimes given notice what the cuts will be. But more often than not we are not given notification,” she said, adding that the first time the Judicial Branch saw or heard about the governor’s mid-term budget adjustments were on Feb. 3 when they were made public to everyone.

“We are not talking about immunity from cuts, we are just talking a more visible process,” she said.

The bill also limits the governor’s ability to make emergency cuts, known as recisions, in order to reduce budget deficits. Any recisions affecting the Judicial Branch would have to be approved by the Appropriations Committee.

“We are talking about the governor cutting a different branch of government’s budget,” Lawlor said. “Can the governor make unilateral cuts to the Judicial Branch? And is there anything they can do to stop this? The answer right now is, no.  All we are saying is let the legislature into the decision.”

Rep. Arthur J. O’Neill, House minority leader on the Judiciary Committee, says it should be left to the governor to cut their budget.

“When we run in to severe deficits, the governor needs to have the power to make cuts to avoid a larger deficit.”