Perhaps state Supreme Court Chief Justice Allen Loughry felt a small sense of relief following his budget presentations to legislators. Members of the House and Senate Finance Committees, in separate budget hearings, stayed away from specific questions about the Court’s controversial spending.
News reports have detailed how the Court spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on luxury renovations and furnishings, including $500,000 to upgrade Justice Robin Davis’s office, $28,000 for two rugs in her office, a $32,000 couch and a $7,500 inlaid wooden floor in Loughry’s office and $132,000 to renovate Justice Beth Walker’s office.
Loughry even brought up the wasteful spending during his prepared presentation, calling it expensive and inappropriate, but also isolated, and he detailed measures he has taken as Chief Justice to control spending.
But lawmakers did not follow the lead. They stuck to the specifics of the proposed budget.
Indeed, if Loughry is given to optimism, he might see some light at the end of the tunnel of the controversy. However, you know what they say about that light; it could be from an approaching train.
That is an appropriate analogy. In fact, twice yesterday I heard legislative leaders—one a Republican and one a Democrat—say that “the train has left the station” on a resolution calling for a public vote on an amendment to the State Constitution that would put the Judiciary’s budget under control of the Legislature.
Currently, the Judiciary’s budget is constitutionally protected. The Supreme Court determines its own budget for the Judiciary—the proposal next year is $139 million—and the Legislature cannot change it. (However, it’s important to note that as much as 90 percent of the Judiciary’s budget is for personnel and other costs that are dictated by state law.)
Legislators often get grief from their constituents about government waste. The public doesn’t spend much time contemplating separation of powers or parsing specific items in the budget; they just know that a one-half million dollar office renovation or a $32,000 couch is a waste, and they’re right.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Craig Blair told me he did not grill Loughry on “couchgate” because that information is on the record, and he was more interested in the specifics of Loughry’s $139 million budget proposal, and on that, he was disappointed.
“This is a budget hearing,” Blair said, “and I felt like we were really, really short on details.”
But it’s evident that the wasteful office spending is on lawmakers minds and is the driver behind the proposed constitutional amendment.
It’s risky to predict legislative certainties. The multiple moving parts and myriad influences mean that what is imminent this morning can be dead by the end of the day.
However, this is one you will want to mark down; The Legislature, with bi-partisan support, will easily get the two-thirds vote necessary in each chamber to propose a constitutional amendment to put the Judiciary’s budget under legislative control.
That train is coming down the track.