The judiciary budget proposal—with funding for the first judicial pay raises in 13 years and $25 million to expand civil legal services—took a significant step forward with Governor Andrew Cuomo’s apparent endorsement of the $2.7 billion spending plan.
In his annual budget address on Jan. 17 in Albany, Mr. Cuomo publicly thanked Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman for presenting a no-growth budget, submitted a budget message to the Legislature that had nothing but praise for the Judiciary’s plan and, in encountering the chief judge on the floor of the auditorium where the address was delivered, said to Judge Lippman, “You are a gentleman.”
Although Judge Lippman’s budget still has to endure legislative and final executive scrutiny, the chief judge and Chief Administrative Judge A. Gail Prudenti were relieved and elated after listening to the governor’s speech.
“We are very, very pleased with the governor’s commentary,” Judge Lippman said. “It is a very good start.”
“We are really happy with the comfort level that this governor has with our budget,” Justice Prudenti said.
New York governors are constitutionally required to submit the Judiciary’s budget to the Legislature without revision, but can include commentary. In recent years, that commentary has been critical.
In 2010, Governor David A. Paterson complained that the Judiciary was conducting “business as usual” when every other part of state government was cutting back.
Last year, Mr. Cuomo accused the Judiciary of not doing its part to address a $10 billion state budget shortfall. Ultimately, the judiciary sustained deep cuts and hundreds of layoffs.
This year, the Judiciary starts off on much firmer ground for next year’s budget with what appears to be executive support.
Even in years when the judiciary is not a budgetary target, the governor’s written commentary is generally tepid to neutral. Mr. Cuomo’s Jan. 17 commentary was unusually positive.
“The budget submitted by the chief judge recognizes the ongoing budgetary pressures the state faces, addressing fiscal reality while supporting the courts’ ability to uphold their constitutional duty,” Mr. Cuomo wrote in a passage which Judge Lippman and Justice Prudenti saw for the first time at the budget presentation. “I commend the Judiciary for examining their operations and for continuing to seek to make the court system work better and smarter.”
The next step is to sell the budget to the Legislature, a task that falls primarily to Justice Prudenti, who took over as chief administrative judge less than two months ago. She will defend the budget at a legislative hearing on Jan. 30.
Vincent E. Doyle III, president of the New York State Bar Association, said he is pleased by the governor’s support. However, Mr. Doyle, of Connors & Vilardo in Buffalo, said the state bar will issue a report this week documenting the harm caused to the court system by the 2011-2012 budget cuts.
Similarly, the New York County Lawyers’ Association expressed concern over the impact of those cutbacks.
“The fact that the governor is supportive of the proposed judicial budget is welcome news, but the New York County Lawyers’ Association remains deeply concerned about the impact that judicial budget cuts are having on the administration of justice, and intends to address the issue further in the coming days,” said Stewart D. Aaron, NYCLA’s president and a partner at Arnold & Porter.
The judiciary’s budget came in at $3.5 million, or .15 percent, below this year’s, even as the Third Branch would absorb $70 million in new expenses, much of it for judicial and contractual pay raises for non-judicial staff.
It includes nearly $28 million for the first phase of a three-year boost in judicial pay. If the raise is approved by the Legislature and the governor, judges will get a 17 percent pay hike on April 1.
Also in the budget is $21.3 million for contractually required pay increases for non-judicial employees and $25 million in increased aid for indigent defense. The $10,000 supplemental stipend for judges that was added to this year’s budget is not included in the 2012-2013 budget.
The $25 million in increased aid for indigent defense, one of the few instances of new discretionary spending in the judiciary budget, is the same amount recommended by the Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services in New York and requested in this year’s budget. However, only half the money was allocated this year.
“This is an important step forward and we are very appreciative of the chief judge’s inclusion of funding for civil legal assistance at a time when we can only help one of nine New Yorkers who come to us for civil legal help,” said Steven Banks, attorney-in-chief of the Legal Aid Society.
Mr. Cuomo’s $132.5 billion executive budget would increase operating expenses by about 1.9 percent without any increase in taxes or fees, according to the Division of the Budget. It stresses education reform, including a robust teacher evaluation program, state pension reform, economic development and streamlining of state government.
Three of the four major public safety agencies—the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, the Division of Criminal Justice Services and the State Police—would sustain budget cuts of up to about 2 percent. Only the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services would receive a boost, 13.1 percent.
The budget proposes:
• Establishing a new Foreclosure Relief Unit within the state Department of Financial Services to provide counseling and mediation services for New Yorkers facing eviction from their homes.
• Enacting an all-crime DNA bill that would require everyone convicted of a Penal Law crime to submit a genetic fingerprint (NYLJ, Jan. 5). It also addresses a lingering issue on who is responsible for collecting DNA from convicts. Legislation included with the budget would require DNA to be collected “by the public servant to whose custody the designated offender has been committed” or, if the individual is sentenced to probation, the local probation department.
• Creating a new “tenant protection unit” to “enforce landlord obligations and impose strict penalties for failure to comply with New York state’s rent laws.”
• Authorizing the State Police to recruit new officers for the first time in three years. Under the budget, the State Police would be allowed to hold two classes in the next year to bring up to 230 new recruits into the system. The new classes would bring to 4,458 the number of troopers when they are incorporated into the force, or a decline of just below 10 percent from the force’s peak of 4,939 officers in 2009.
• Creating an Office of New Americans to provide legal assistance to immigrants seeking to establish themselves as U.S. citizens.
• Requiring that the trial date for traffic violations be a date subsequent to the initial appearance.
@|Joel Stashenko can be contacted at jstashe\firstname.lastname@example.org; John Caher can be reached at email@example.com.