Omnibus judiciary bill passed by House, off to Senate

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With a goal of keeping the court system strong, while increasing access to justice for all, the omnibus judiciary finance and policy bill received a favorable House vote.

Sponsored by Rep. Debra Hilstrom (DFL-Brooklyn Center), HF1160 would fund the third branch of state government.

Passed 71-59 by the House Friday, the bill now goes to the Senate, where Sen. Ron Latz (DFL-St. Louis Park) is the sponsor.

“It is really important that we adequately fund (the courts) so that Minnesotans do have access to justice,” said Rep. Carly Melin (DFL-Hibbing).

The House language primarily follows the recommendations of the governor with some additional spending priorities. Hilstrom noted the Supreme Court alone requested a $34 million base increase. Combined with the governor’s other priority requests the total base budget increase request was $44 million.

The target given to the House Judiciary Finance and Policy Committee was $30 million over current base funding; however, with new fees the total increase in the bill is closer to $47 million.

“This is a bill that continues again to increase the amount of money that Minnesotans are required to pay; it includes more spending that’s not needed,” said Rep. Steve Drazkowski (R-Mazeppa). “This bill doesn’t have fiscal responsibility.”

Pay and reimbursement

Gov. Mark Dayton wants 4 percent annual pay increases for judges; the bill puts the increases at 3 percent annually.

“There is additional specialty court funding in the bill: $925,000 in (fiscal year) 2014 and $925,000 in (fiscal year) 2015,” Hilstrom said. “We know that specialty courts are very effective in keeping folks from recidivating. We know that we have great success with our drug courts, with our new veteran’s courts, with other DWI courts, and we want to make the certain the courts have the ability to expand that. Some of the areas that we are missing specialty courts is in Greater Minnesota, and we want to make sure that all people have the ability to access these very effective courts.”

The bill also has a 1 percent increase each for the Tax Court, the Board on Judicial Standards, and Sentencing Guidelines Commission, Hilstrom said.

Public defenders now have a $75 attorney registration fee that they receive as part of the public defenders funding and that is due to expire. The bill funds the $1.9 million in both fiscal years 2014 and 2015 to fund approximately 25 public defenders.

There are 19 judges on the state Court of Appeals; however, not all reside within an hour’s drive of their permanent chambers in St. Paul. Included in the bill is a provision that would provide for reimbursement of housing and mileage expenses for judges whose permanent place of residence is more than 50 miles from chambers.

“This is a provision that wasn’t even asked for by the courts,” said Rep. Peggy Scott (R-Andover).

Expanded background checks for guardian ad litems and conservators are also part of the bill’s provisions.

“We have found in Minnesota that there was one particular guardian who was charged with taking care of vulnerable adults, and what we found after she committed very many acts of stealing money from her vulnerable clients is that many years before she had lost her attorney’s license,” Hilstrom said. “What we found is that no one is doing a background check on whether or not people had a professional license that was suspended or taken. This is going to broaden the scope of the background checks that are currently done and just make them more frequently. Currently, it’s done every five years; this would make them done every two years instead.”

Fee increases

Much of the spending bump comes from increased fees.

A $15 increase in the criminal traffic surcharge is expected to bring in almost $13 million, a graduated increase in conciliation court fees is forecast to bring in $3.98 million and a bond reinstatement fee would net $259,000.

“When defendants get sent to jail and then they want to bond out, in many instances a bond company will put a bond for the defendant, and then if the defendant fails to appear the bond company makes a motion before the court to get their money back once that defendant has been rearrested,” Hilstrom said. “This says that if the bond company is going to come and ask for that money back they need to pay the state a portion of that fee.”

A proposed $2 court technology fee increase would go into a special revenue fund to pay for the update of court technology, including e-discovery and e-filing across the state. This is expected to generate $5.58 million in the biennium.