Governor Andrew Cuomo presents his executive budget proposal
Governor Andrew Cuomo presents his 2014-2015 executive budget proposal in Albany yesterday. (AP/Mike Groll)

ALBANY – The judiciary’s effort to begin the road to financial recovery after several years of belt tightening hit a pothole Tuesday when Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the court system’s request for a budget hike is out of line.

Cuomo, as constitutionally required, submitted the Judiciary’s unaltered budget proposal to the Legislature along with his own executive budget.

But in his commentary, the governor noted that the spending proposal, representing what he described as a 2.7 percent hike and the Judiciary portrays as a 2.5 percent increase, is at odds with his goal of keeping overall state spending to 2 percent or less.

Although Cuomo did not mention the Judiciary in his oral presentation, nestled into the budget documents was a short criticism of the spending plan put forth by Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman and Chief Administrative Judge A. Gail Prudenti. Cuomo said in the budget document that the court system proposal “is out of step with our fiscally responsible goal for all of New York State government” and urged the Legislature to keep any increase “at or below 2 percent…so that it is in line with the rest of State spending.”

Cuomo also stressed that over the past three years the political branches have kept their spending increases below 2 percent. But he did not mention the fact that while his administration and the Legislature saw meager increases in recent years, the Judiciary dealt with flat, zero-growth budgets.

The governor’s remarks are by no means dispositive as the final budget, including the Judiciary portion, is a product of lengthy negotiation between the executive and legislative branches.

But the annual commentary is viewed as an indicator of how much of a fight the court system can expect as it lobbies for funding. With this year’s criticism, it appears the Judiciary is in for a fight—and how much of a fight may become evident Feb. 5 when Prudenti appears before the Legislature to defend the proposal.

Prudenti on Tuesday said the court system’s budget is fully defensible, and suggested she intends to make a strong case for the plan when she testifies before the Legislature in two weeks.

“We have worked diligently to submit a fiscally responsible budget, as close to a 2 percent increase as possible,” Prudenti said. “As the chief judge always reminds us, the courts are the emergency room for the people of the state of New York in the most difficult times of their lives. We need to keep the courthouses open for them and in order to do so we have submitted what we believe is a reasonable budget.”

Lippman and Prudenti have portrayed the 2014-15 budget proposal as one that seeks to end several years of backsliding and begins the process of shoring up a court system that has weathered difficult years, with numerous cutbacks ranging from layoffs to closing courts at 4:30 p.m. to make sure unionized employees are out the door by 5 p.m. and not collecting overtime.

They have stressed that staffing is at its lowest level in a decade, that spending in the current fiscal year is nearly $22 million less than it was in 2009-2010 and that to a large extent the requested increase reflects expenses over which the Judiciary has little or no control.

For instance, the requested budget includes a $17 million increase for the final phase of the statutorily required indigent criminal defense standards, $17.5 million for mandatory raises for non-judicial employees and $8.4 million for the third-phase of a judicial pay hike. There are no new capital projects in the budget. The major new expense would be a $15 million increase in spending for civil legal services, a priority of the chief judge and one that he insists, in the long run, saves money.

In the past, officials said, the Judiciary absorbed statutory and contractual obligations, coming in within zero-growth budgets even as mandatory outlays increased. But court officials have said the judicial system can no longer juggle its expenses without impacting its core mission.

“There is a point beyond which the Judiciary cannot be pushed if it is still to play its role in our constitutional system,” Lippman and Prudenti said in the executive summary of the budget they submitted to Cuomo. “We have reached that point.”

However, in his commentary Cuomo said he “strongly believe[s] that an efficient and effective Judiciary can robustly fulfill its constitutional duties with a spending increase at or below 2 percent.”

Cuomo’s budget would keep the increase in state operating funds at 1.7 percent with executive branch agencies held to a nearly flat 0.5 percent growth in the fiscal year that begins April 1. However, he would also increase education aid and health spending by 4 percent each, and boasts that under his leadership the state has gone from a deficit situation to the point where it projects a $2 billion surpus.

The $1.81 billion budget figure highlighted by OCA represents what is known as the “cash funding” number, or the amount of money the courts propose to spend for the fiscal year. Using that figure, the Judiciary is asking for an increase of $44.2 million, or 2.5 percent.

Cuomo, in his budget commentary, focused on appropriations and disbursements, and under that calculus the Judiciary budget would total $2.1 billion, amounting to an increase of 2.7 percent for $53 million.