CHARLESTON, W.Va. — For the first time since the Legislature gained the power to adjust the state court system’s budget, Chief Justice Tim Armstead presented a $135.5 million budget request.
Justices emphasized the proposal is $4 million less than the court system’s budget was five years ago, indicating they’re watching expenses even though costs tend to rise over time.
Armstead, who was Speaker of the House of Delegates just two years ago, returned to the Legislature to present the proposed budget to the Senate Finance Committee. A similar presentation will be made to the House Finance Committee at 9 a.m. Thursday.
Armstead on Monday afternoon also took senators’ questions about whether justices support an intermediate court of appeals. He declined to answer for the full Supreme Court but noted that his prior support is on the record from when he was a delegate.
Noting that the court system’s budget proposal does not set aside money for an intermediate court, Armstead still said, “We are very much willing to work with the Legislature.”
Armstead was accompanied to the budget hearing by justices Beth Walker, Evan Jenkins and John Hutchison. They said the remaining justice, Margaret Workman, had a scheduling conflict.
The appropriation request for Fiscal Year 2021, which begins on July 1, is the first since the Judicial Budget Oversight Amendment went into effect.
“I think you’re going in a great direction. I thank you,” said Senator Rollan Roberts, R-Raleigh. “I think this working together is working.”
The appearance before the Senate Finance Committee followed a period of turmoil for the Supreme Court.
Three justices left the court under a cloud in 2018. Accusations focused on stockpiling millions of dollars in reserves at a time when the court system had full control of its budget, free-wheeling use by some justices of state vehicles and expensive catered lunches for judicial work.
Armstead and Jenkins were appointed to openings on the Supreme Court and then were elected. Hutchison also was appointed and is up for election to the seat for the first time in 2020.
Last week, reacting to a followup state audit, lawmakers praised Supreme Court officials for getting spending habits under control.
Response was similar following Armstead’s presentation on Monday. Senator Bill Ihlenfeld, D-Ohio, asked a question about drug courts and thanked Armstead for “restoring integrity to the court.”
Justices worked with the Legislature to return to the General Revenue Fund $10 million remaining from previous fiscal years for use in other areas of the state budget.
The return of excess funds was accomplished through a one-time reduction of the “Current Expenses” line item in the
fiscal 2020 budget.
That meant the line went from about $19.9 million to $9.9 million — with the expectation that the line item would be restored to its current amount in fiscal 2021.
The court has filled the gap in its current year’s budget by spending down nearly $10 million in remaining excess funds from prior fiscal years.
The “Current Expenses” line item funds such crucial services as guardians ad litem, mental hygiene commissioners, drug court counselors and staff, drug testing, family court space leases and payments to jurors throughout the state.
About 82 percent of the judicial branch budget is for employee salaries and benefits. The budget funds about 1,468 full-time positions throughout the state.
The court system provided two back-to-back 5 percent pay raises to its employees at the same time as the West Virginia Legislature provided teachers and state employees such pay raises in fiscal 2019 and 2020. Justices, judges and magistrates did not receive the pay raises.