Opinion

Sound Off: Judges need help with funding bill

By Alan Hancock and Vickie Churchill

Island County Superior Court judges

We are taking the unprecedented action of asking for your support to convince our legislators to provide a stable funding source for our local courts by reinstating Senate Bill 5454 as passed by the Senate. Time is short.

We ask that you call your legislators now. Washington ranks 50th in the amount the state government contributes to funding the courts and indigent defense. Washington’s state budget to fund all levels of the courts is one-third of 1 percent. This is not something in which Washington citizens can take pride.

The funding imbalance has burdened our county disproportionately. Counties pay more that 85 percent of total judicial and indigent defense costs in Washington, the highest percentage nationally. The current budget crisis has brought both counties and courts to the breaking point.

Senate Bill 5454, drafted by a task force of about 75 judges, lawyers, lawmakers and lobbyists, would have mandated the state pay half of district court judges’ salaries, now paid by the counties in full. Increased filing fees would help pay for the redistribution of the salaries. No new taxes were proposed.

The courts knew that it would he difficult to get the legislature to assume new costs unless some money was brought to the table. Reluctantly, we supported legislation to increase filing fees that have not been increased for a long time.

Unfortunately, the state House Judicial Committee has gutted Senate Bill 5454. The House Judiciary Committee appropriated the filing fee increases for other uses and removed the state’s obligation to help fund district court judges. This puts the courts back in the same position they were before — underfunded — despite our best efforts to help defray the costs with higher filing fees.

Senate Bill 5454 would have mandated that 25 percent of each district court judge’s salary — which is $118,458 annually — be set aside for each county to spend on local trial court improvements. Those improvements, for example, could be increased security, funding for Court Appointed Special Advocate Program, or CASA, establishment of drug courts, creation of a system for handing offenders with mental health issues, or any other needed programs.

We proposed that half the increases in court filing fees, ranging from 17 percent to 82 percent would be spit between the state and local government. The county’s half could be applied to each county’s general fund. This would give counties some much-needed financial relief.

However, House amendments to the bill remove state funding of judges’ salaries and create a legislature-controlled account for trial court improvements. That means that Island County will have to compete statewide against other counties for limited grant dollars. Under the Senate version of SB 5454, Island County’s trial court improvement account would go up or down depending on the number of cased filed in Island County. That’s fair. It is also fair that Island County get half the filing fee increases to apply to Island County’s general fund — to be used in Island County.

We ask all citizens to support our efforts to ensure the security of our court system. We ask you to tell the state to step up to the plate and provide more financial support to the court system. The House Judicial Committee has created an unfair system that pits Island County against larger counties.

The state has a clear responsibility and interest to financially provide for our courts statewide. Call your state legislators. Tell them to reinstate Senate Bill 5454 as passed by the Senate.

Your legislators are State Senator Mary Margaret Haugen, state representatives Chris Strow and Barbar Bailey. Then toll free number is 800-562-6000.

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