Justice Ronald Castille
Justice Ronald Castille ()

While Gov. Tom Corbett has advocated keeping the state judiciary’s fiscal year 2014-15 budget flat, the courts are asking for about $25 million more in state funds, according to the Unified Judicial System’s proposed budget.

Corbett issued his proposed budget Feb. 4, allocating, for the second year in a row, about $317.4 million to the judicial branch.

On Feb. 10, the Unified Judicial System presented its proposed budget to the state Senate appropriations committee, asking for about $342.5 million in state funding.

Corbett’s press secretary, Jay Pagni, said the judiciary is not unique in receiving level funding in the governor’s proposed budget for the coming fiscal year and noted that the courts have received increases in funding in recent years.

“This is the proposed budget. We would obviously love to do more, but we had to learn to do more with less,” Pagni said.

The courts did receive a bump in state funding from about $298.9 million for the 2011-2012 fiscal year to about $309.3 million for the 2012-13 fiscal year.

The judiciary’s budget increased again to about $317.4 million for the current fiscal year.

But Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille said those increases simply rose to meet growing costs and therefore did not provide any type of financial cushion for the courts.

“We’ve seen increases, but they’ve only kept up with increases in expenses, especially cost of living,” Castille said, adding, “We’re really people-driven in our funding, in that 85 percent of our funds go toward salaries and health benefits.”

According to Castille, it costs the judiciary about $225,000 in annual salary and benefits to employ a common pleas court judge and about $117,000 in salary and benefits to employ a magisterial district judge.

Castille added that the judiciary’s budget is 0.5 percent of the entire state budget and that the courts already “run lean,” having taken several cost-cutting steps in recent years.

The biggest savings, Castille said, have been acheived through keeping common pleas and MDJ seats vacant.

According to a prepared statement Supreme Court Justice Thomas G. Saylor delivered on behalf of the courts to the Senate appropriations committee on Feb. 10, the judiciary has saved about $14.1 million by leaving those seats vacant and an additional $4.5 million by eliminating several magisterial district offices across the state.

“Overall, in the past six years, the judiciary has saved about $45.8 million through various means,” Saylor told the Senate committee.

But Castille said the courts have made all the cuts they can.

Add to that the rising cost of pension contributions and the judiciary is in a “tough spot,” Castille said.

Castille responded to criticism that the judiciary could save additional money by moving more judicial employees out of leased space throughout the state and into the 425,000-square-foot judicial center that opened in Harrisburg in May 2009 by calling the potential savings “negligible.”

“If they make that criticism, they should try and add it up,” Castille said.

Castille explained that the only judicial offices that could potentially be centralized in Harrisburg are in the appellate courts, a small fraction of the judiciary as a whole.

“That only leaves the 38 positions on the appellate courts, so you probably wouldn’t save very much,” Castille said, noting that the additional travel expenses the courts would incur by moving appellate judges’ chambers to Harrisburg would likely cancel out any potential savings.

“I think it would be a wash,” Castille said.

In any event, Castille added, the building was designed with a capacity that’s intended to accommodate growth over the next 100 years.

Whilethe judiciary is asking for a raise in the coming fiscal year, it did note in its proposal that its state budget request is about $33.5 millionless than it might have been if not for collections it anticipates from temporary filing fee surcharges put in place by Act??49??of??2009. The Act 49 surcharge is set to expire Dec. 31 of this year, at which point the judiciary will have collected only about $17 million of the projected $33.5 million, but Castille said the court anticipates the legislation will be extended.

“If it’s not, we would need another $17 million [in state funds] starting in January,” Castille said.

According to the judiciary’s proposal, projections estimate that by the end of this fiscal year, the courts will have used about $26.2 million in Act 49 funds.

Castille said the court will next advocate on behalf of its proposed budget before the state House of Representatives appropriations committee.

Zack Needles can be contacted at 215-557-2493 or zneedles@alm.com. Follow him on Twitter @ZNeedlesTLI. •