During his budget presentation, Gov. Andrew Cuomo listed the state agencies and offices that would be submitting to 10 percent cuts — including the operations run by the Comptroller and Attorney General. Then Cuomo took a moment to mention another state entity. “Only the Office of Court Administration did not participate in finding reductions, and we will negatively comment on their budget when we submit it,” Cuomo said. Judge Ann Pfau, who has served as the state’s chief administrative judge for almost four years, said the judiciary simply can’t sustain cuts of that magnitude when roughly 95 percent of its budget goes to personnel. “Quite frankly … we would have to close courts,” she said. “While we can be asked to cut our budget by 10 percent, we’re an independent branch of government,” Pfau said. The judiciary submitted a budget of just over $2.9 billion, which according to Cuomo reflects an increase of almost 2 percent, or $50 million, from 2010-11. “The proposed Judiciary budget also reflects, on a cash basis, a spending increase of 5.3 percent, or $140 million,” Cuomo notes in his “Commentary of the Governor on the Judiciary,” contained in the budget package. “In order to address the fiscal realities confronting the State, I respectfully ask the Judicial Branch to reduce its spending while continuing to serve those who seek justice,” Cuomo wrote. Pfau added that the judiciary was “very mindful” of the state’s tough fiscal condition, and “we have been working very cooperatively with the governor’s office.” She declined to speculate on why the governor would call out the Judiciary in this way — but did note that the budget of that other independent branch of government, the Legislature, wasn’t included in the list of those taking a 10 percent cut. The state’s judges haven’t received a raise in more than a decade, although that predicament could be coming to an end thanks to the recent passage of legislation establishing an independent panel to set periodic salary increases for public officials.
ALBANY, NY - Governor Andrew M. Cuomo criticized the state's Judiciary yesterday for "not participating" in his efforts to close a $10 billion gap in the 2011-12 state budget. "I respectfully ask the Judicial Branch to reduce its spending while continuing to serve those who seek justice," Mr. Cuomo said in a brief message accompanying the submission of his $132.9 billion spending plan to the Legislature. Mr. Cuomo's plan would reduce overall state spending by 2.7 percent—the first proposed reduction by a governor in 15 years. Meanwhile, court administrators have offered a $2.7 billion budget for the year that begins April 1, a 1.7 percent increase over the amount projected for this year (NYLJ, Dec. 2, 2010). Mr. Cuomo noted that he had asked executive branch agencies under his control to trim spending by an average of 10 percent. The budget includes up to 9,800 layoffs; the courts have not projected any layoffs. The governor was obligated to submit the Judiciary's budget as written. But he and the Legislature are free to alter the proposal. With that possibility in mind, the court system last week imposed new restrictions on hiring that authorize the filling of vacancies only when there is a "compelling" need (NYLJ, Jan. 26). Court officials insist they have worked hard to trim costs, blaming their $50 million budget increase on salary and pension expenses mandated by labor contracts and state law. "We recognize that everybody is going to have to sacrifice, but also we have a constitutional role to fulfill," Chief Administrative Judge Ann Pfau said in an interview after the governor's presentation. She said that further economies are not out of the question but reductions of 10 percent would cripple the courts. "That would really affect our ability to function," she said. Judge Pfau said the courts are doing their part by, among other things, suspending the filling of non-judicial vacancies created by an early retirement program at least until the state budget is approved. "We will continue to belt-tighten," she said. Samuel W. Seymour, president of the New York City Bar, said in a statement after the governor's presentation that state courts have been "pushed to the brink" in trying to dispense justice despite the recession. "To address this crisis, the Judiciary 2011-2012 budget provides funding for basic access to justice in cases involving fundamental human needs, including for low-income litigants," Mr. Seymour said. "The city bar urges the Legislature to enact the Judiciary's proposed 2011-2012 budget in its entirety."
A centerpiece proposal of the Judiciary budget is a $25 million allocation to better fund civil legal services for the poor. The funding would be the first increase in an allotment that would grow to $100 million a year in four years under a plan advocated by Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman to improve "access to justice" for those on the bottom rung of the economic ladder. The New York State Bar Association also has endorsed the Judiciary's budget. While pointed, Mr. Cuomo's criticism of the Judiciary's budget was mild compared to Governor David A. Paterson's critique of the Judiciary's 2010-11 budget. "The Judiciary must accept that each branch of government can no longer conduct 'business as usual,' and that all branches share an obligation to taxpayers to restructure government in light of the state's new fiscal reality," Mr. Paterson said at the time. The Judiciary last year proposed a 7.4 percent increase in its budget for the 2010-11 fiscal year (NYLJ, Dec. 3, 2009). In the end, the Legislature approved the court system's budget largely as proposed. Mr. Cuomo's budget includes a reduction in prison cells and the consolidation of 11 government agencies. It calls for no new state taxes but for cuts in state aid to local schools, Medicaid and state and city universities. He also proposes closing juvenile justice facilities following a "careful analysis" of vacancy rates, availability of community services for youth and other factors. Mr. Cuomo's budget proposes saving $22 million out of the $3.7 billion budget for the Office of Children and Family Services, which operates the residential programs for juvenile delinquents and juvenile offenders. The spending plan would eliminate 376 beds and 371 salaried positions within the agency. Currently, only 648 youth live in facilities that have 1,300 beds. Mr. Cuomo also advocated the abandonment of the requirement that communities housing prisons and youth facilities receive one-year notices of pending facility closures. He said he favored giving each community losing a facility a $10 million payment to help compensate for their loses. Joel Stashenko can be contacted at email@example.com.