Money for courts should be NC priority

The following editorial appeared in the Fayetteville Observer:

North Carolina’s court system is limping along without enough money. The result is long delays for hearings, evidence that sits untested at crime labs and jobs that can’t be filled.

Newly minted state Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin seeks $30 million more for the courts in next year’s budget. Half would cover operating funds and half would go to salaries.

This belt-tightening hurts at the local level. Key positions in family courts and drug courts were eliminated in recent years in Cumberland and Robeson counties. Some rural counties, with few positions to begin with, also faced tough cuts.

State government has been pinching pennies for years. The recession forced spending cuts at all levels. With recovery now strong in most of the state, economic pressures have eased.

But a tax overhaul has created a new shortfall that may force the state to tap its reserve funds. Whether revenue streams set to kick in next year will prevent further spending gaps is a matter of disagreement in Raleigh. But most lawmakers say the shortfall isn’t significant, given the overall size of the state’s budget. That hasn’t kept them from warning that they’ll be hard-pressed to come up with more money for various good causes, from education to health care to economic incentives.

Martin warns that if legislators expect state government to function properly, they can’t repeatedly force courts to do more with less. The judicial system, he said, isn’t just any other department.

“The court should not be standing in line with agencies and looking at who should take the greatest cut,” he said. “There are simply too many important functions by the courts – and these have to be adequately funded.”

Martin’s plea for more money may sound familiar. His predecessor, Sarah Parker, said much the same in March 2010, when she called the courts’ work overload due to budget cuts “mind-boggling.”

That was a Democratic justice under a Democrat-controlled General Assembly, just as Martin today is a Republican facing his own party’s leadership in the House and Senate. This might seem to prove the wisdom of The Who, that the new boss really is the same as the old boss.

But the better lesson is that we won’t be fooled again. Legislative leaders have said today’s $200 million shortfall is a pittance within the overall state budget. If that’s the case, they should have no trouble finding the $30 million that Martin is requesting to shore up one of our state’s most essential components, its courts.

Tribune Content Agency